Suicide Prevention Not Working Returning Troops Could Increase Problem

WASHINGTON — Efforts to prevent suicides among servicemembers are not working, according to a new report that warns that the problem is likely to get much worse as more troops return from deployment.

suicide photo.jpgA report released last month by the Center for New American Security (CNAS) stated that from 2005 to 2010, troops took their own lives at a rate of approximately one every 36 hours and, although only 1% of Americans have served in the military, former military personnel represent 20% of suicides in the United States.

The Army reported a record-high number of suicides in July 2011 with the deaths of 33 active and reserve component servicemembers reported as self-inflicted, according to the report.

“America is losing its battle against suicide by veterans and servicemembers. And, as more troops return from deployment, the risk will only grow,” the report summary stated. “To honor those who have served and to protect the future health of the all-volunteer force, America must renew its commitment to its servicemembers and veterans.”

While military and VA officials argue that their prevention programs are more effective than the report suggests, they also say the problem is extremely challenging.

The report, “Losing the Battle: The Challenge of Military Suicide,” was done by the CNAS as part of the White House’s Joining Forces Initiative, an initiative described by the White House as a “comprehensive national initiative to mobilize all sectors of society to give our servicemembers and their families the opportunities and support they have earned.”

Margaret Harrell, co-author of the report and the director of the Joining Forces initiative at the CNAS, said at the report’s release last month that “military suicide is a national security issue,” adding, “We believe we have actionable recommendations that can help address this issue.”

Report Lists Obstacles to Addressing Suicide

The report listed a number of obstacles to addressing suicide as well as recommendations to overcome those:

  • Transfers — Military-personnel transfers complicate efforts to help servicemembers struggling with mental-health issues. The report recommended that the services need to ensure that information about soldiers’ mental health is transferred when they move to a different location, noting, “When a unit commander has significant concerns regarding a departing member, he or she should discuss these issues with the receiving commander.” The report also stated that Army personnel transfers occur too soon after deployment and recommended that the Army instead should establish a unit-cohesion period when troops return.
  • Legal Problems –Even though legal problems can be a predictor of suicide potential, commanding officers are not always aware of who is having those problems. The report recommended that the military services “ensure that investigators inform unit commanders of ongoing investigations, and that investigators work with unit leaders to ensure the safety and well-being of members under investigation.”
  • Post-Deployment Health Assessment — The mental health screening process following deployment is flawed, according to the report, which said that unit leaders do not do enough to encourage troops to complete the Post-Deployment Health Assessment truthfully. Leaders should emphasize that a truthful answer will allow servicemembers to link any future mental-health problems to their military service and assure that they receive appropriate treatment.
  • Hazing — Military hazing is a small but significant problem, according to the report, which pointed out, “One to 2% of military suicides, and 4 to 5% of military suicide attempts, involves hazing in the unit or military workplace. This is a small percentage, but unacceptable nonetheless.”
  • Prescription drug abuse — Excess prescription medication and misuse of that medication “is another obstacle to addressing the problem of military suicide,” according to the report, which noted that approximately 14% of the Army population currently is prescribed an opiate. One solution, according to the report authors, is for the Drug Enforcement Administration to “grant the DoD authority to accept and destroy excess prescription medication from military servicemembers.
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