Late Breaking News
Senate Committee Holds Hearing on Suicide Rate in the Military
- Categorized in: April 2009 Issue
WASHINGTON—At a Senate hearing last month, members of Congress called on top military ofﬁcials to do more to prevent suicides among military personnel.
“We have been alarmed, like the rest of the country, at the rising rates of suicide by military servicemembers,” said Senate Armed Services Personnel Subcommittee Chairman Ben Nelson, D-Neb.
Sen. Nelson noted that between 2007 and 2008, the suicide rates per 100,000 personnel have increased in every service. The Army experienced an increase from 16.8 to 20.2, the Navy from 11.1 to 11.6, the Marine Corps from 16.5 to 19 and the Air Force from 10 to 11.5.
“We know that more is needed and it is needed now,” he said.
Military ofﬁcials vowed to step up their efforts to address suicides, but also expressed that there is no single answer to the problem. “There is no single solution. In fact, it is going to require a multidisciplinary approach. A team effort at every level of command,” said Army Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Peter W. Chiarelli.
At the hearing Gen. Chiarelli called the Army a “stressed and tired force” and noted that that 12- to 15-month deployments and the stress of repeated deployments play a role in the increase in Army suicides.
“If you are asking me for one thing that I think has caused that spike, that is a factor,” he said of the lengthy deployments.
While Army deployments have decreased from 15 to 12 months, the Army is not expected to get its last combat brigade off of a 15-month deployment until later this year, according to Gen. Chiarelli. “We must ﬁnd ways to relieve some of this stress, particularly the stress caused by deployments, frequent and lengthy periods of separation,” he said.
The other services also expressed concern over suicide trends and said that they are working to prevent them. Gen. James F. Amos, assistant commandant of the Marine Corps, told the committee that the jump in suicides in the Marines from 25 in 2006 to 41 conﬁrmed or suspected suicides in 2008 was “unacceptable.”
“The data shows that the most likely Marine to die by suicide corresponds to our institutional demographics: Caucasian male, 18 to 24 years old and between the ranks of private and sergeant (E1-E5). The most likely cause is a failed relationship with a woman,” he said.
Gen. Amos said that one way the Marines are working to reduce suicides is through an initiative to train non-commissioned ofﬁcers and corpsmen to identify and assist suicidal Marines. “Our NCOs have the day-to-day contact with Marines and the best opportunity to recognize changes in their behavior,” he said.
Brig. Gen. Michael S. Linnington, commandant of cadets at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, said that the academy is also grappling with suicides. Last year two cadets and two members of the staff and faculty killed themselves.
“Let me assure that everyone at West Point is reenergizing our preventive measures, and investigating any patterns regard these incidents,” Brig. Gen. Linnington said.
Ofﬁcials also testiﬁed about suicides among military recruiters at the Houston Recruiting Battalion where four recruiters took their life between January 2005 and September 2008. Although there was not a single cause attributed to the deaths, military ofﬁcials acknowledged that recruiters have “stressful jobs” and are looking at ways to provide additional support.
“Peer support networks are often difﬁcult to maintain in recruiting, as most personnel live in surrounding communities, not on an installation where soldiers can easily socialize,” said. U.S. Army Accessions Command Commanding General Lt. Gen. Benjamin C. Freakley.
Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said in testimony before the committee that more must be done to make sure that recruiters have the support they need. “We owe it to them and their families to put better safeguards in place to prevent future suicides both within the Houston Recruiting Battalion and across our armed services. We must be fully cognizant of the challenges in the recruiting mission,” Sen. Cornyn said.
Need for Mental Health Providers
Military ofﬁcials told the committee that a shortage of mental health providers poses a challenge in providing mental healthcare.
“The real challenge across all of DoD is not a function of unwillingness, it is a function of a shortage of mental health providers across our country, both civilian and military.” Gen. Amos said.
Air Force Vice Chief of Staff Gen. William Fraser III told the committee that the Air Force was able to hire 97 new mental health providers, but still experiences a shortage. “We too are experiencing a shortage of mental health providers because of the shortage across the country,” he said.
The Army has increased its cadre of mental health providers by 250, but it is also short on providers, according to Gen. Chiarelli.
“Is there anything that this subcommittee can do in terms of bonuses to help recruit more people into this area?” asked Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.
Gen. Chiarelli said that even with the ﬁnancial resources that the Army currently has, it is still difﬁ cult to ﬁnd help. “I can tell you that we have a rough time. We have the resources to hire right now. In a specialty that is short already, it is difﬁcult even with the money to hire what we need,” he said.
Even with the appropriate mental health help in place, preventing suicides is still a challenge, according to Army Deputy Surgeon General Maj. Gen. David Rubenstein. He told the story of a 33-year-old former soldier who was a motivational speaker at a TBI clinic. He was undergoing mental healthcare and had just seen his primary care provider and psychiatrist over the last few days prior to committing suicide.
“The soldier was treated, was compliant and supported in every way, and yet he is dead today,” he said.
Suicide Prevention Hotline
One way in which help is offered to suicidal servicemembers and veterans is through the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. In collaboration with the VA, the hotline gives callers who are veterans the option of pressing “1” and being routed to a mental health provider in coordination with the VA. Many active duty military have called the line for help, said A. Kathryn Power, director for the Center for Mental Health Services at the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
“During FY 2008, 780 callers identiﬁed themselves as active duty military. They received the same expert services as any veteran or family member who called,” she said.
During this ﬁscal year, so far 434 callers who identiﬁed themselves as active duty have called, Power said.
Sen. Graham asked military leaders what they thought about active duty members calling this hotline. “Is that disturbing?” he asked.
Army Deputy Surgeon General Maj. Gen. David Rubenstein replied that it was. “This is disturbing that active duty soldiers who live on or near a military base, [that] those soldiers feel they have to call a third party,” he said.
Sen, Graham said that the fact that so many active duty personnel went outside the military to ask for help is indicative of a stigma problem in the military that prevents servicemembers from seeking help within the military for mental health issues.
“This is the most overwhelming evidence that I have heard that there is a real stigma problem here if 780 people have to go outside the military chain,” he said.