Mullen Voices Concern with Military Suicide Rate
By Army Sgt. 1st Class Michael J. Carden
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Jan. 13, 2010 Suicide is a growing problem in the military community, and its leaders must be committed to reversing that trend, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said here today.
Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and his wife, Deborah, address audience members at the Departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs Suicide Prevention Conference in Washington, D.C., Jan. 13, 2010. DoD photo by U.S. Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Chad J. McNeeley
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
In an address to an audience of more than 1,000 military and other government agency health-care workers and officials gathered for the 2nd Annual Suicide Prevention Conference sponsored by the Defense and Veterans Affairs departments, Mullen and his wife, Deborah, shared their thoughts and concerns on the issue.
Mullen said that while he recognizes the challenge the armed services have had in combating suicide while waging wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, it’s a challenge that can’t be overlooked.
“The subject of suicide is one of tremendous difficulty and challenge and understanding, and there have been a lot of people who have worked on this diligently for many, many years,” the chairman said. “Certainly, … with the rise in the numbers in all the services since these wars, [Defense Department officials have] started to really look at the causes and get to a point where we can prevent this and understand this.”
Despite a lack of a clear link between repeated deployment cycles and servicemember suicides, the admiral urged the audience not to count that factor out. “Dwell time” at home between deployments over the next couple of years, he said, will begin to increase for the Marine Corps, but not for the Army. So health-care professionals need to be mindful of that and continue learning, he said.
“I know at this point in time, there does not appear to be any scientific correlation between the number of deployments and those that are at risk, but I’m just hard-pressed to believe that’s not the case,” Mullen said. “I know we are and hope to continue to look [at deployments] first to peel back the causes to get to the root of this.”
Sustaining Marine Corps dwell time will alleviate “a lot of pressure and stress,” the admiral said. But the armed forces must carry on their missions as the United States draws down forces in Iraq and increases its military footprint in Afghanistan, he added.
The suicide rate in all four services was higher than the national average, with 52 Marines and 48 sailors taking their own lives in 2009, according to the individual services’ annual reports. As of November, 147 soldiers had fallen to suicide. The final 2009 figures for the Army are expected to be released tomorrow. Air Force officials reported 41 active-duty suicides, a 12.5 per 100,000 ratio, in 2009.
Mullen stressed that in addition to the high rate of suicides among the ground forces, the increasing rate is evident among the entire military.
“As I look at the numbers for each service, the rates have gone up per capita at about the same rate over the past four or five years for every service,” he said. “This isn’t just a ground-force problem.”
Suicide is a growing problem that leaders have to commit to, and experts who study suicide prevention must help those leaders understand the causes, Mullen said. The military’s leaders are eager to implement programs and better prevention measures, he added.
Mullen advocated for better overall training for servicemembers, noting that the military has a tendency to focus on training, whether it’s field or mental fitness, during the deployment-readiness cycle. Training for troops and their family members must start from the day they swear in, he said.
“We have a tendency to cycle [training] to get you ready before you deploy, but I would argue that with where we are right now, we have to have a continuum of readiness that starts to educate families from Day One about the challenges the lie ahead, the information that is available [and] the networks that are out there in these challenging times, so that we can hopefully avoid crisis,” he said.
Suicide among military family members also is a growing concern for the military. Deborah Mullen said that although much focus has been given to suicide prevention for servicemembers and assistance for survivors of suicide victims, more must be done for the families. Family members also need training to build resilience and learn how to deal with the stress of deployments, she said.
“There’s another side to this, and that’s family members who’ve committed suicide,” she said. “It’s our responsibility. These are our family members.”
Families are under great stress, too, she said, noting that watching their loved ones deploy repeatedly can be equally as strenuous on families at it is on the deploying servicemembers.
“I think we need to realize that we have families that are under such great stress,” the chairman’s wife said. “This stress is only going to continue. We need to be able to give tools to family members who are left behind.
“I hope the families are something you will look at as you work through these really challenging problems,” she told the audience. “We do have family members that we need to be aware of, and we need to get our arms around the number of suicide attempts and actual suicides and the impact on the family.”
The conference began Jan. 11 to give health-care professionals insight to each organization’s programs and best practices in suicide prevention. Nearly 100 veterans who have experienced suicidal thoughts were expected to share their stories of survival by the time the conference ends tomorrow.