USU Program Enhances Navy Chaplains' Suicide Intervention Skills

A chaplain, left, prays with a patient. They are both seated facing each other. Their eyes are closed.
By Sarah Marshall

In a small counseling room tucked away inside a clinic, a furious service member paces the floor.  His life is crumbling around him, he says, and he no longer has the will to live.  In another room across the hall, a distraught military family member tearfully describes her deep sadness after losing her brother. She feels she can no longer live in such despair.

A group of Chaplains pose for a photo.
The second iteration of the course took place in February. (photo by Tom Balfour)
These are just a few of the many scenarios that were recently acted out at the Uniformed Services University’s (USU) Val G. Hemming Simulation Center (SimCen), as part of USU’s Chaplains-CARE program. The week-long training is designed specifically for U.S. Navy chaplains, and is part of an initiative to enhance their suicide intervention knowledge, skills, and abilities.

“The course is so important because military chaplains, for a very long time, have been at the forefront of suicide prevention,” said Dr. Marjan Holloway, an associate professor in USU’s Department of Medical and Clinical Psychology and director of the Suicide CPR (Care, Prevention and Research) Initiative.

The program was created to help ensure chaplains receive more in-depth training on how to intervene with a suicidal service member or family member, she explained, especially since they’re able to provide 100 percent confidentiality to the individuals who seek their confidence.  While designing the course, she said, they focused on readiness and the importance of taking a multidisciplinary approach to suicide prevention, collaborating closely with mental health and other providers.

Holloway noted that the program aims to expand to other branches of service. They also hope to study the program’s effectiveness as it continues to expand.

The inaugural training course was held last year in August, and the second took place in February. Each course drew nearly a dozen Navy chaplains stationed around the world.  The program was led by Holloway and administered by instructors and supervisors. Navy chaplains, mental health workers, clinical psychologists, pastoral counselors, and social workers served as supervisors, who helped lead the training and helped design the curriculum.

Three men sit in an office and speak with each other about the Chaplains-CARE course.
USU’s Brigade chaplain Navy Cmdr. Leroy Mack (left) offered guidance to chaplains who
 participated in the recent Chaplains-CARE course. (Image credit: Tom Balfour)
The first part of the training took place in the classroom, where the chaplains focused on understanding suicide triggers, and learned how to help a troubled individual come up with a safety plan and problem-solving strategies. They also learned how to help the individual build a social support network. In addition, the course included a lesson on practicing self-care to help prevent professional burnout.

During the second half of the training, the chaplains put their skills to the test at the SimCen where they were presented with several different vignettes.  They encountered several “suicidal” individuals in mock counseling rooms and were given 20 minutes to work with each, helping them through their troubled situation. Then, after the encounter, the chaplains received feedback from their supervisors and instructors as well as the individual who acted as the suicidal person.

USU’s Brigade command chaplain Navy Cmdr. Leroy Mack served as a supervisor, and offered guidance to the chaplains who participated in the recent course. He explained that the training refines the counseling skill set of chaplains with the most up to date information, and it does so in a peer-to-peer learning environment. Having the opportunity to practice their counseling skills with the actors is also very beneficial, he said.

Mack said that the dynamic and realistic role-playing, in combination with the classroom training, helped make what they learned more palpable. Chaplains who participated in the training were also given feedback about how well they did in each of the role-playing scenarios, which gave the chaplains an opportunity to address the skills they need to sustain and/or enhance, he said. Meanwhile, the training environment offered chaplains new counseling techniques to consider and helped affirm their skill set, he added.

The first iteration of the USU Chaplains-CARE course was held in April 2017, with Navy Chaplains stationed across the globe participating. (photo by Tom Balfour)
“I strongly recommend this training to junior and senior chaplains alike,” he said.  “This training enables chaplains to effectively counsel and care for service members, and family members, during critical moments in their lives.”

“USU’s Chaplains-CARE program is hands-down the best Navy training I’ve experienced in 27 years of service! The in-class training modules offered excellent, plug-and-play suicide intervention strategies that are very helpful and provide easy-grip handles for the many components of evidence-based suicide intervention. The SimCen training was, in a word, powerful. The actors were so good that the artificial environment and the nervous anxiety of being observed faded away within minutes as I was absorbed into their life and death struggle. The immediate feedback following the encounter from peers, supervisors, and instructors alike was deeply transformative as I wrestled with the intervention strategies and their implementation in various counseling situations,” said Navy Lt. Robert Hess, chaplain for the Olde York Chapel at the U.S. Coast Guard Training Center in Yorktown, Virginia. “Overall, from start to finish, this training made me much more competent and confident in dealing with suicidal service members. Dr. Holloway and her team are highly skilled, knowledgeable, and personable—from the very beginning I knew that I was in excellent hands. And, as a result, I’ve encouraged every chaplain in my circle to jump on the opportunity should it come.”

For more information about the program, email or