Late Breaking News
Military Officials Frustrated as to Why Servicemembers Commit Suicide
WASHINGTON, DC—Military officials told a House panel they are frustrated that they continue to not know why servicemembers commit suicide. “The most frustrating thing is trying to find a cause,” Army General Peter Chiarelli told the House Armed Services Committee’s military personnel subcommittee at the end of July.
While the military is well aware of the suicide problem among its population, officials still grapple with finding ways to successfully address it. The Army reported 140 suicides in 2008, an all time high for the Army. The Marine Corps reported 146 suicides in 2008, an increase over 103 in 2007. The Navy reported 44 suicides from July 2008 to June 2009. So far this year the Air Force reported a rate of 12.4 suicides per 100,000 people.
Subcommittee Chairwoman Susan Davis asked military officials what they find most “frustrating” in addressing the suicide problem.
Air Force Vice Chief of Staff General William Fraser said it was frustrating that there was “no one single answer.” He said that it is particularly troubling when a servicemember is receiving mental health help, but sill commits suicide. “To me that is very frustrating because you have provided programs, you have provided mental health providers or chaplains, or whatever else it might be…but for some reason, it was not enough,” he told the subcommittee.
Finding Suicide Causes
The Army is counting on a recently rolled out National Institute of Mental Health study to find causes for Army suicides. The 5-year study is the largest study of behavioral health ever conducted by the Army. “I think it will get us out of the speculation of…trying to figure out and look at statistics and determine a cause,” Gen Chiarelli said.
General Chiarelli added that he believes that what would give the Army a “leg up” on the suicide problem would be to increase the dwell time for soldiers from 12 to 15 months. He said that there is no doubt in his mind that reduced dwell time “is causing a tremendous amount of stress on the Force, soldiers and families.” “I have to believe that the national study on mental health will identify that early as one of the stressors that is affecting us,” he said.
Vice Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Patrick Walsh said that he did not believe that deployments play a role in suicides in the Navy. “In one sense you would think that more deployments would be indicative of those who would be more inclined to go down this path, and that has not been the case for the Navy.”
He said that Navy servicemembers generally do well when deployed, but experience problems when they return. Targeting programs to help those who return from a deployment assimilate back into the society should be emphasized, he said. “The first 6 months for those who return from deployment are in the area that is most vulnerable, as well as those who have never deployed. It strikes in the face of what many in the general population think, [which] is that we are handcuffed off to deployment and we have to do this and therefore, it is more stressful for us.”
The time when Marines are most vulnerable is when they return from deployment, Marine Corps Assistant Commandant Gen James Amos told the subcommittee. White males between the ages of 18 to 24 are the most likely to commit suicide in the Marines. The most common methods of suicide are by gunshot or hanging, and the most common associated stressor is a failed relationship. “One of the typical threads is a failed relationship. That seems to be for the Marines—the 18-to 24-year-olds who are taking their lives—to be a common thread, but it is never the thing that seems to push it over the edge.”
The subcommittee also wanted to know what was being done to determine whether potential recruits are suited for the challenges of military service. “Areyouable tolook atthosepotential recruitsand develop tools tosay arethey going tofallapart?” askedRep MikeCoffman(R, CO).
The Army has an assessment tool it is standing up that a soldier can use throughout the soldier’s career to evaluate personal resiliency, Gen Chiarelli said. The tool is currently not being used to evaluate potential recruits for service. In order to potentially use the tool to evaluate recruit prospects, there are “legal issues that we will have to maneuver our way through to show that the tool has that degree of accuracy that we could make that kind of call,” he said.
General Amos said that the Marines determine who are strong candidates at boot camp. “We specifically and very purposefully put an enormous amount of stress at boot camp for a 24-hour period of time, and what we want to do is find out those young men and women that can’t handle it.”
Service leaders also told the subcommittee about some of the programs in place to address mental health. General Chiarelli said that it is hard to find more mental health counselors. One way in which the Army is addressing the shortage is through the use of online mental health counseling that soldiers canutilizeathome.
The Army is also conducting a pilot program at three locations in which soldiers can self refer themselves for drug and alcohol counseling, without their command being informed of this. “You can go in and we have set special hours that are after duty on Saturdays and Sundays where a soldier who self refers can get the care and counseling, and hopefully, head off the problem.”