‘A debt I can never repay’ — How Reddit is filling gaps in the military’s failing mental health care system

"Some of you gave me your number and demanded that I text or call you. Your support and care helped push me through that dark time. I’m alive."
504th Expeditionary Military Intelligence Brigade Soldiers post during a photo, Dec. 2, 2021, Fort Hood, Texas. Suicide is unfortunately a common problem among the ranks. These Soldiers reach out to those in need. (U.S. Photo illustration by Sgt. Melissa N. Lessard)

The suicide rate for young military service members aged 18-24 in 2020 was more than double that of civilians in the same age bracket, and higher than those of all age demographics among civilians, according to Department of Defense data and findings recently released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In the past five years alone, the suicide rate among active-duty servicemembers overall has increased by 41%.

Although young people in the United States report the highest level of social media use of any demographic among the U.S. population, neither the U.S. Army nor the DoD has an official system in place to respond to reports of mental health harm or distress online. The systems that are in place – such as suicide hotline numbers – are often defunct, or only reachable during normal business hours. 

An unofficial subreddit, R/Army, run by current and former U.S. Army personnel has been forced to fill the gap left by an unresponsive DoD, providing counseling to service members struggling with thoughts of self-harm. The members of this subreddit are occupying this role without any funding or payment, and have systematically documented the serious incidents they have encountered. Although the moderation team and users of the subreddit have saved multiple lives and attempted to inform the DoD of flaws in their suicide prevention program, the DoD has not officially responded. Sgt. Maj. of the Army Michael Grinston, whose public affairs officer is active on Reddit, has made contact with the volunteers, though this communication seems to be more of a back channel at the moment. 

‘Our users of the subreddit are the most important resource’

It took going down the call roster of the United States Army Human Resources Command, which oversees military suicide prevention efforts, for Kinmuan (his username on Reddit), a former soldier who spent about a decade in Military Intelligence, to finally get a response. Now, he is the moderator of the U.S. Army subreddit on reddit.com which averages about 700,000 unique users each month and has over 200,000 subscribed members. The subreddit was created as a service-specific place for U.S. Army personnel to talk with each other, pass around jokes, and discuss issues that face the military as a whole. 

The jokes cease, however, whenever there is a post or discussion about mental health. When Kinmuan and other moderators or users receive information that a service member on the site has the means and the intention to take their own life, they act. In a world filled with charities or organizations that claim to fight against veteran or service member suicide, some with little to no transparency on where the money is spent, the R/Army community is doing that work without pay. They do not sell merchandise, do not have a link for donations, and do not expect to be compensated for the hours they’ve spent getting service members the help they need.

“The process of getting service members help when we receive information online is indicative of the whole problem,” said Kinmuan, when interviewed about the role of the U.S. Army subreddit in mental health crises. 

As is the case across the military, most of the resources for suicide prevention in the DoD are only available during normal business hours. When Kinmuan called HRC for assistance with the soldier’s suicidal ideation mentioned above, it was not the first time he or other users on the subreddit had encountered obstacles when trying to get in contact with the Army service members at risk of harming themselves. Fort Bragg, one of the largest U.S. military installations in the world, also has major issues. 

“The number (on Fort Bragg’s suicide prevention page) is closed on the weekends. Additionally, there is no option 5 on the phone menu,” according to a report prepared by Kinmuan. The moderation team of the subreddit has created multiple internal documents that describe lessons learned from their experiences dealing with mental health issues in hopes that they could help the DoD. “If I am a soldier in distress, and I attempt to use this number thinking I’ll get help, what does it tell me about the care for my well-being if [the number] is wrong?”

For this article, I called the same number, which connects to an automated line for Bragg’s Substance Abuse program office. Kinmuan’s report was made in February 2021. As of last week, the Army has still not fixed the issue with the number.

To claim that it’s only the Army that is uniquely plagued by these issues would be false. The website for the Department of Defense Suicide Prevention Office also has incorrect and outdated information. There is no contact information anywhere on the site for the office, their Instagram account has not been updated since May of 2020, the link to DoDlive.mil does not work, and the DoD/VA links page, which includes suicide resources for the Army, Army Reserve, Navy, Navy Reserve, DoD, and Coast Guard are either inoperable or redirect to the wrong website.

The subreddit’s staff rely on a mixture of experience and semi-official search tools to attempt to identify a soldier, but they do not have the same wide-ranging capabilities as the Army itself. The subreddit’s internal documents provided to Task & Purpose reveal the difficulty and sheer scale of these efforts, and the site’s moderation team also keeps users of the subreddit informed of their efforts through pinned threads. 

In one document, a user describes how they had to call a service member’s training school, the installation’s staff duty desk, the installation’s chaplain, and then a chaplain at yet another installation in response to a post on Reddit that indicated suicidal ideations.

“The Army/DoD/VA needs to find a way to connect what may be their only link to the suicidal soldier/vet,” the user states in the document. “Folks that have the access and knowledge to contact the right person who can get in their car and drive to the suicidal soldier. Something like a semi-formal, no-rank, on call working group kind of thing.”

Just before this story was written, I reached out to the United States Army to discuss the suicide prevention programs they had in place. The list was robust, with efforts including new behavioral health tracking tools, an improved transition program for soldiers leaving the military who wish to access mental health treatment, and staff visits. Still, there was absolutely no mention of the Internet, social media, or how to conduct outreach or liaison efforts there. The White House’s strategy to fight military and veteran suicide, released last year, also makes no mention of efforts to engage with social media sites

“Our users of the subreddit are the most important resource,” said Kinmuan. “I can sleep well knowing that even at 2 A.M in the morning, there is someone out there, even multiple people, who will immediately respond to a service member in need. We all work together; they police threads, let us know when there is a serious event, and even call service members in distress when need be.

The front page of the Army Reddit community

“We set up a suicide resource auto moderator, we changed the name to ‘suicide bot’ because that was what users were commenting to get it to provide. Users will sometimes make a comment in a thread to get the bot to post, then delete their post so the information is still there. That’s how much they care.”

Comments from users illustrate the scale and nature of these efforts. Multiple posts and comments have stated that the subreddit has saved their lives. One user who had posted a comment on the sub previously to say goodbye to other users before committing suicide explained how the forum saved his life:

“The responses were immediate,” he began. “Some of you gave me your number and demanded that I text or call you. Your support and care helped push me through that dark time. I’m alive. I’m in a better place in my life. I owe this subreddit a debt I can never repay.”

The soldier on whose behalf Kinmuan and his team contacted HRC is ok. Thanks to Kinmaun’s decisive actions, someone from the Army — a point of contact Kinmaun has worked with in the past and continues to work with — reached out to the young man before he’d done any harm to himself. 

“There have been instances before where [us] or someone else has called a unit to tell them about a service member in distress, and we have to explain [to] them that ‘we’re from the internet.’ If the person I cold-called on the HRC phone roster didn’t pick up the phone, what would have happened? I have run into the same issue repeatedly – the Army has no mechanism for this.

“Let’s say we served together 6 years ago and I’m out now. Maybe you’re still in. I see you post something suicidal. I have no AKO access. I don’t know what your current unit is. Maybe at best I know the location. Who do I call? Do I just start cold calling? Any staff duty? That garrison? The PAO? What if it’s after hours? What happens when I call a Brigade Staff Duty, and he’s on the post but not in the brigade and it’s 2 a.m. Friday night? We’re relying on the goodwill of individuals, but those individuals won’t always be there and there needs to be an actual system, with doers, in place. There needs to be a 24-hour center with people who know what these social media sites are and how to use them.”

No official program

The closest the DoD ever came to establishing a liaison for the mental health discussions on social media that Kinmuan described was through the efforts of now-retired Navy chief petty officer and counselor Grant Khanbalinov. Khanbalinov began conducting outreach on social media sites unofficially with a small team of sailors in March 2019, taking it upon himself to start posting on the U.S. Navy’s subreddit and on Instagram. Khan became a fixture of the subreddit, offering support to sailors in his free time, often after working long hours for the Navy. Whether it was talking to sailors on the phone for hours to convince them to get help, or chatting via Reddit Messenger, Khanbalinov reportedly reached over 100 sailors in 2019 alone. Sailors on the subreddit appreciated his efforts so much that they nominated him to be the 2019 Military Times service member of the year.

“Chief Khanbalinov has gone above and beyond what others would do, and at a very personal level, to help Sailors in need who have had suicidal thoughts or mental depression,” wrote one user. “He is even helping prior sailors as well,” wrote another. “He truly cares and that is rare.”

Khanbalinov’s efforts were so successful that Navy Public Affairs wrote an article praising his work, and the Bureau of Naval Personnel created an official duty position for him: the national social media trainer at Navy Recruiting Command. Then, they stopped him from conducting any official outreach.

“They [the Navy] created a billet for me to do this stuff, but then didn’t let me do any of it,” said Khanbalinov, when I asked about his outreach program in January 2022 for this story. “We asked to make the program official, I [met] with master chiefs and admirals to pitch ideas on how to fix the issues we were encountering.

Chief Navy Counselor Grant Khanbalinov poses for a portrait after being recognized for saving the lives of two suicidal Sailors in July 2019. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Zachary S. Eshleman/Released)

“They shut me down. The recruiting billet that was created for me was never focused on suicide prevention, but they embraced the idea of what I was trying to do and brought focus to it. Big Navy wasn’t as emphatic: the position I had at the Pentagon was changed as soon as I got there to put suicide prevention on the back burner. I also put out my number for sailors to contact me in an official ‘My Navy’ HR video. It was immediately pulled down after being posted and I got scolded for why I didn’t communicate that I was going to post to my chain of command (COC).”

As with Kinmuan, Khanbalinov feels that the lack of an official DoD outreach and liaison program on social media is an issue that needs to be addressed. Although Khanbalinov is now retired from the Navy, he’s still active on Reddit as of January 2022, and there is, as yet, no official program in place. Similar to the efforts of the U.S. Army subreddit, Khanbalinov is working to provide a service that the most well-funded, well-equipped military on the planet has neglected to implement for its active-duty personnel. 

“We asked to make the program and we were told no,” said Khanbalinov. “Even though it would have cost the navy $0. I created a site for them where we can track when and where these incidents are coming from. That way, we could send suicide prevention representatives to specific areas or analyze trends. They also said no to that.

“It’s a lack of care for service member well-being that comes from seeing everyone as replaceable and not as human beings. Everyone can be replaced in the military, whether you’re an E1 or O7. It’s a problem in the entire DoD.”

Like Khanbalinov, there are other individuals who are trying to conduct outreach on these sites, even as there is resistance from higher levels. One of them is the Sergeant Major of the Army, Michael Grinston, whose public affairs officer created an account on the U.S Army subreddit just under a year ago to coordinate with soldiers there about their ongoing issues. Although there have been some setbacks, Grinston has maintained this line of communication on multiple other forums, including a Reddit Ask Me Anything (AMA) where members of the subreddit had the opportunity to ask him questions directly. 

“The Sergeant Major of the Army believes it is important to engage with soldiers on these platforms so that he can hear feedback, both positive and negative, from the force,” said Sgt. 1st Class William Reinier, the public affairs non-commissioned officer in charge for SMA Grinston. “The SMA firmly believes and has stated on multiple occasions, that taking care of people is critical to boosting the Army’s readiness. If someone has questions for the SMA on any of the sites he’s on, he takes the time to respond to them. Everyone won’t be happy with the answers, but it is worth the effort to try.

SMA Grinston
Sergeant Major of the Army Michael A. Grinston gives opening remarks in the U.S. Army People First Take Force Solarium at West Point, N.Y., March 15, 2021. The Solarium brings together Soldiers with under two years of service from all demographics to discuss serious issues within the Army, and to help develop solutions to rebuild an Army-wide culture of dignity, trust and respect. (U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Gregory Muenchow)

“When a soldier makes a post on Reddit or another social media site indicating that they have suicidal ideations, that means the clock is ticking and we have to respond,” Reinier added. “It also indicates that our preventative measures at the local level are not successful in preventing the soldier from reaching that crisis point. That is an issue– and one that we’ve thought hard and long about. It starts with a connection to those on your team, leaders knowing their soldiers and their issues and how best to assist them in solving them.”

Reinier also described the efforts the Army was taking overall to create a culture that is more accepting of mental health treatment so that soldiers would feel more comfortable when talking to their peers and leaders. SMA Grinston has called out the aspects of military culture that stigmatize those who seek mental help from his own social media accounts.

“The Army’s totally changing the way it selects leaders at the battalion and brigade level,” said Reinier. “Commanders now go through an entire assessment program, which rates them based on cognitive assessments and reports from their peers and subordinates. We’ve expanded the program to command sergeant major billets, and we’re about to start piloting a program that would do the same for those who are looking to be company first sergeants. These are hard stops, and a way that we’re attempting to change the leadership culture to select those who are empathetic and look after the well-being of their troops. All policies rely on strong leadership, and this is something that the SMA and other senior leaders understand. It takes time and effort.

“I can’t say enough about SMA Grinston and his team’s effort, as an office,” said Kinmuan. “I’ve been critical of certain decisions and statements SMA Grinston has made – you can find high profile examples on the subreddit. Credit where credit’s due though: SMA Grinston has done a lot of things right and taken on a lot of challenges in the social media space that I think serve as an example to the force.”

As of this writing, Grinston is the only senior leader to engage with the community consistently in the past 12 months, for better or worse.

The ‘candid conversations’ only possible on Reddit

The subreddit and its users are involved in multiple other issues that affect the force, serving as an avenue for soldiers to voice their concerns or things they’ve encountered with less fear of retribution. These comments and posts have led to follow-on news stories by NBC and other organizations, along with changes to policy. One recent example was the issues soldiers were having with the Army’s tuition assistance program, which was first highlighted in R/Army posts. Kinmuan began engaging senior leaders on Twitter, and the information eventually made its way to news organizations.

One of those reporters who highlighted the issue was Davis Winkie from Army Times, who took the rare step of establishing an official account on the subreddit and building a connection with Kinmuan and the community there.

“Reddit’s pseudonym-driven culture really allows soldiers to have candid conversations there about issues that could otherwise fly under the radar,” said Winkie, when asked why he took the step of using the subreddit as a resource to draw upon.

 “Just look at what they did with the failed tuition assistance platform rollout — the users realized they had a collective problem, [and] organized and successfully executed a campaign to draw attention from media, lawmakers, and senior Army officials. Now it’s included in the NDAA [National Defense Authorization Act]. I honestly don’t think that would’ve happened without Reddit.

“We routinely see individuals who want to connect with another military or Army individual, who can understand their experiences and concerns and talk on their level,” said Kinmuan. “DoD-wide, we do not have this resource as an actual program, because much of our outside-of-business-hours resources are third-party-run programs that do not give a Soldier the impression that they will be talking to someone like them.

“The DoD could establish the same type of official forum if they wanted. It should be anonymous, however. There are already sites like rallypoint.com that attempt to serve the same purpose of the subreddit, but young soldiers fear what the higher-ranking ones may say, and it can become toxic as people throw around their rank outside the internet. The same reasons why people are afraid to report mental health issues or sexual assault are transferred to sites where everything you say is connected to who you are and may affect your career.”

There is a fear of retribution because, as a great deal of research on the matter has confirmed, service members seeking mental health help are often stigmatized. Based on data from research published in 2015, 60% of service members who experience mental health problems don’t seek treatment. The researchers in their study of 20 papers published from 2001-2014 found that service members’ biggest fears were their units’ leadership treating them differently after seeking help, and a fear of being seen as weak. 

This same fear also affects discussions on gender and race-specific issues, even on the subreddit. Minority populations in the armed forces are at higher risk of suicide than their civilian counterparts. The suicide rate for women in the military is double the national average for civillian women and almost three times that of their civilian counterparts for Black service members. With the DoD still struggling with issues around race, sexual assault, discrimination, and extremism, attempts to have these conversations are fraught. The gender breakdown of all users on Reddit is 62% male and 38% female; the U.S. Army subreddit is 94% male and 6% female based on the subreddits’ most recent self-reported census data from 2019.

Women make up 16% of enlisted personnel and 19% of officers in the military, and the subreddit’s leadership has tried to increase the diversity of its users (neither the overall Reddit data nor the subreddit’s data contain a breakdown of racial demographics).

“A lot of the fear from female users to post their issues comes from institutional reactions to sexual harassment and assault, and military sexual trauma,” said a female moderator of the subreddit. “The subreddit isn’t as bad as real life, but there’s still a strong theme of ‘women always equal stupid Sexual Harassment/Assault Response and Prevention (SHARP) cases’ and even if the female posters in specific threads get supported, when other ones see that behavior, they go elsewhere for those specific issues.

“It’s not something that can be moderated very well without engaging in full-on censorship, because that outlook is ingrained in military culture. I’ve had some trouble drawing the lines on how to push back against it over the years,” said the female moderator.

“One of the most common threads that are deleted by users after posting are those that deal with sexual assault,” said Kinmuan. “Service members have questions about how to report, what paperwork they need to be able to get treatment from the VA after they leave the service since claims are often denied if there are no official documents, how to avoid their alleged attackers. They often describe what happened to them. It’s hard listening to all of these stories. I’m not a mental health professional, but I understand that having someone to listen to you is important.”

Even though there are countless examples of how the work that moderators and users on the subreddit have done has resulted in lives being saved, the DoD still refuses to take Reddit seriously. 

“They don’t understand the internet, and they’re afraid of engaging in spaces they can’t control,” said Kinmuan, when asked why he thinks that is. “It’s been individuals like SMA Grinston who have taken it upon themselves to engage with these sites. What happens when that PAO position or SMA position switches, or when users leave or migrate to other sites? It’s not like a command where there’s an enduring structure in place.” 

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