Army Deploys Prevention Programs to Combat Soldier Suicides
By Gerry J. Gilmore
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, May 29, 2008 The Army is deploying a multitude of prevention programs as part of efforts to stop soldiers from taking their own lives, senior Army officials said here today.
The Army should train its soldiers how to cope with psychological challenges as well as physical ones, Army Brig. Gen. Rhonda Cornum, assistant surgeon general for force protection, told reporters during a Pentagon roundtable.
For example, the Battlemind training program prepares soldiers for a combat environment, Cornum said, adding that troops who’ve taken Battlemind training report fewer psychological health problems.
Last year, the Army initiated a chain-teaching program to educate all soldiers and leaders about symptoms associated with post-traumatic stress disorder and mild brain injury, Cornum said. More than 900,000 soldiers were trained since July, she noted.
Cornum saluted Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates’ decision to change Question 21 of the questionnaire for national security positions, regarding mental and emotional health. The revised question, she said, now excludes non-court-ordered counseling related to marital, family or grief issues, or counseling for issues related to military service in a combat zone.
“So, the change was made because accessing professional help for those mental health issues should not be perceived to jeopardize your career,” Cornum said. “On the contrary, failure to seek care for those kinds of issues might actually increase the likelihood that your psychological distress could escalate to a more serious mental health condition, and that more serious condition could, in fact, preclude an individual from performing those sensitive duties.
“War is hard on soldiers and it can be even harder on families,” she observed. “When soldiers return home, most will experience a readjustment period, but they will also experience a successful home transition.”
Some returning servicemembers will require short- or long-term counseling to assist in that transition, Cornum said, noting that situation is not unusual.
“We believe there is more to be done, and we are committed to maximizing prevention, as well as treating psychological health problems as they occur,” Cornum said.
The Army’s personnel directorate and the Army Surgeon General hosted the initial Suicide Prevention General Officer Steering Committee on Feb. 11. That committee will take a critical look at policies, procedures, climate and culture as they pertain to suicide prevention, according to Army documents.
The 144-page Army Suicide Event Report released today said 115 soldiers took their lives in calendar year 2007, the highest number of suicides since record-keeping began in 1980, according to officials. Five of the deceased were female soldiers. Ninety-three of the departed soldiers were active-duty troops, and 22 were either in the National Guard or Army Reserve.
Army records show 102 soldiers died by their own hands in 2006, of which 11 were women.
Most soldiers that killed themselves were young and male, according to the report, with failed personal relationships cited as the number one cause. Most soldiers that committed suicide did so at their home stations and not overseas. In fact, of the 115 soldiers who killed themselves last year, 32 died in Iraq, while 4 died in Afghanistan. Drug or alcohol use was cited in 30 percent of the suicide cases.
The majority of the suicide cases last year did not have a known history of a mental disorder, according to Army documents.
The current active-duty Army suicide rate is 18.8 per 100,000 soldiers, according to officials. The Army suicide rate goes down to 16.8 per 100,000 soldiers when the reserve components are added. The adjusted U.S. population suicide rate is 19.5 per 100,000 people.
There’ve been 38 confirmed soldier suicides so far this year, officials said.
“Obviously, suicide is a very complex phenomenon with a lot going on,” said Army Col. Elspeth C. Ritchie, director of the Army Surgeon General’s office for behavioral health. “The main motive for suicide is related to breakup of relationships, usually with a partner.”
Other soldier-suicide motivators include getting in trouble at work or elsewhere, Ritchie noted.
“We know that the multiple deployments and the length of the deployment are major stressors back at home; so, there’re kind of a lot of different factors,” Ritchie said. “We certainly would hope that all of our indicators of quality of life get better as the deployments get shorter and there’s more ‘dwell time’ back at home.” Dwell time is the time at home station between deployments.
“But, I don’t think we would be able to say we predict that at this time,” Ritchie continued. “We also know that we’re doing a lot of mitigating strategies at (suicide) prevention and resilience, and we hope that those would help, as well.”
One soldier suicide is too many, said Lt. Col. Thomas E. Languirand, who works in Army’s deputy chief of staff for personnel office.
“We value each and every soldier, and we look continually … at how we can put our policies and programs in place to help with the resiliency of our soldiers and their families to better enhance their life-coping skills,” Languirand said. “And, we obviously believe that behavioral health is a very important, key part of preventing suicides in the Army.”
Languirand observed that high operational tempo is causing stress across the Army’s ranks.
“We understand that we are a force under stress, and we do the best that we can to mitigate those risks -- not only the risks that you may associate with persistent conflict, but also the risks that are normal and prevalent in everyday society,” Languirand said.
Yet, Ritchie said, there doesn’t seem to be a statistical link between wartime operations and an increase in soldier suicides.
“Actually, we’re not seeing a clear relationship between conflict increase and suicide,” Ritchie said.