Late Breaking News
Suicide Rate Among Soldiers at All-Time High
- Categorized in: March 2009 Issue
WASHINGTON—At least 128 Army soldiers took their own lives in 2008, the highest number since the Army began tracking suicide rates nearly 30 years ago, military ofﬁ cials said in January. The ﬁnal number could be even higher as an additional 15 deaths are awaiting ﬁnal determination by the armed forces medical examiner.
Last year’s estimated Army suicide rate of 20.2 per 100,000 is an increase from the 2007 rate of 16.8. The 2008 rate also surpassed the overall national rate for people from the same demographic: 19.5 per 100,000 in 2005, the latest year for which the statistic is available.
Secretary of the Army Pete Geren acknowledged that Army ofﬁcials do not understand why the Army rate keeps rising. “Why do the numbers keep going up? We cannot tell you, but we can tell you that across the Army we are committed to doing everything we can to address the problem,” he told reporters at a brieﬁng.
The emotional stress that deployments cause on soldiers’ relationships is believed to be a factor in many of the suicides. Yet not all the suicides were among servicemembers who were on deployments or had previously deployed. According to the Army, of the known or suspected suicides in 2008, 37 occurred while the servicemember was deployed, 50 occurred after deployment and 44 of the servicemembers had never deployed.
Responding to Suicides
One way in which the Army says that it will address the rising suicide problem is through a “stand down” that was scheduled to take place between February 15 and March 15. During this time, commanders will take a two- to four-hour period to address the suicide problem with soldiers “head on,” according to Gen. Peter Chiarelli, the Army’s vice chief of staff. The commanders will be provided with material to use when speaking to the soldiers.
Following those efforts, leaders will be directed to conduct a “chain teaching program.” This program was launched in 2007 to help soldiers identify symptoms and seek treatment for those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and mild traumatic brain injury. The program, according to the Army, includes standardized material that leaders can use to teach soldiers about the signs and symptoms of behavioral and mental-health issues.
“This is not business as usual. We need to move quickly and do everything we can to reverse this very disturbing increase in the number of suicides we have had in the United States Army,” said Gen. Chiarelli.
Col. Elspeth Ritchie, MC, USA, said that the Army also continues to seek to hire more mental health providers. “We said we were going to hire about 300 more practitioners,” she said. “We’ve gotten up to about 250 more psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers [and] psychiatric nurses. In addition, we have hired over 40 marriage and family therapists. Anybody out there who is interested, we are hiring and we need your help.”
In addition, Dr. Ritchie said that the Army is working on increased training for primary care providers in mental heath, since many people experiencing mental health distress may seek out their care rather than that of a mental health professional.
“We are working on training primary care providers, because we know a lot of people who won’t go see a mental health person right away will go see their doctor,” Dr. Ritchie said.
The Army is also anticipating that the results of a long-term research project to be conducted with the National Institute of Mental Health will help identify factors that impact mental and behavioral health of soldiers and will help the Army address suicides.
The goal will be to identify risk factors and protective factors for suicide in a large population. The study sample will include thousands of individuals in the Army, with subsets ranging from new recruits and soldiers on deployments to soldiers who are separating and reintegrating to civilian life. While the study will go on for ﬁve years, the Army plans to start using what they learn prior to the study’s conclusion.