Army Suicide Rates Continue to Rise

Kimberly Tyler Health Guide February 01, 2008
  • In studies released today by The Washington Post, the suicide rate among active-duty Army soldiers increased again in 2007, this time by approximately 20%. In actual personnel, that is 121 active duty soldiers who chose to take their own life in the last year alone. In 2006, the number was closer to 96 lives lost to suicide.

     

    Yet another equally important statistical rise is the six-fold jump in attempted suicides or self-inflicted injuries by active-duty soldiers. Last year the number of attempts was 2,100; during the second year of Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan (2002), this number was 350.

     

    "Historically, suicide rates tend to decrease when soldiers are in conflict overseas, but that trend has reversed in recent years. From a suicide rate of 9.8 per 100,000 active-duty soldiers in 2001-the lowest rate on record-the Army reached an all-time high of 17.5 suicides per 100,000 active-duty soldiers in 2006."[1]

     

    Why such a reversal in trend? The increase in the rate of suicide and suicide attempts is attributed to several important factors. The first is the repeated deployments for combat without enough respite in-between tours and the lack of resources in the U.S. to effectively diagnose mental health disorders from combat experience. This leads to many soldiers being redeployed without an accurate diagnosis of mental health conditions (including PTSD, anxiety, depression and traumatic brain injury) and/or for soldiers to go back to the field without therapy but just pills in their pockets.

     

    The second factor is the lack of Army psychological resources in the field to handle the mental health and behavioral concerns experienced by the soldiers. Whether on their first deployment or second or third, the nature of combat for these wars (IEDs exploding out of nowhere and the greater need for increased vigilance due to close range guerrilla warfare) increases the risk or exacerbation of psychological ailments in soldiers.

     

    The third factor is the continuing stigma against mental health issues. Although efforts to engage and educate all commanding officers and personnel as to the risks of suicide and behaviors to look for, the continuing sense of dishonor perpetrated by commanding officers and other soldiers is still prevalent.

     

    Lastly, the military at large was not prepared for the extended duration of the war on terrorism, nor were they prepared to handle the high numbers of suicides or the cases of PTSD. The Army acknowledges that even with the U.S. Army Medical Command Suicide Prevention Action Plan, such plan was not designed to address mental health in a combat/deployment environment.[2] In a study ordered by the Army's top psychiatrist, Col. Elspeth Cameron Ritchie, the team conducted over 200 interviews in the U.S. as well as overseas to determine common factors in both suicides and suicide attempts. This study concluded that the top tier issues were "failed personal relationships; legal, financial or occupational problems; and the frequency and length of overseas deployment."[3] Also contained within this study is the acknowledgment that even the Army is not clear on how to address the issues of mental healthcare of soldiers adequately-in the field or upon return. Col. Cameron Ritchie expounds on her concerns, stating, "...the Army must to do better job of making sure that soldiers in distress receive mental health care services."[4]

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    Such a comment is not surprising to hear, as only several months back (November 2007), the non-profit organization The National Academies (an institute that compiles unbiased data to present to policy makers) published their clinical findings regarding the lack of conclusive clinical data for effective treatment solutions for PTSD.[5] (This research study was sponsored by the Department of Veteran Affairs [VA] amid the growing concern of the rising reports of PTSD; the VA required documented evidence to present to Congress on how to treat PTSD to obtain additional funding.)

     

    Conceding that there was no clinical data to support best treatment practices for PTSD, The National Academies report could only emphasize that Congress make funds available to the VA to organize such studies. The report did mention, however that any treatment for PTSD be best suited to the individual (whether that includes medication, therapy or a combination of both) and this includes any co-occurring mood disorders.[6] In an earlier report published in 2006, The National Academies approved using the DSM-IV criteria for diagnosing PTSD (whereas before, such diagnostic assessment was not always followed).[7]

     

    Congress seems to be listening. Just two weeks ago, democrats were publicly praising President Bush for the approval and release of an additional 3.7 billion in veteran affairs funding (this was an increase over funding originally budgeted for 2008-overall, a 6.6 billion increase over 2007 funding that passed in December).[8] The extra 3.7 billion was designated as emergency funding for 2008 to improve veteran's health care and benefits. Two areas identified as essential by democrats sponsoring the passage to create such funding were to invest in treatment for PTSD and traumatic brain injury for returning veterans (2.9 billion allocated) and reducing the backlog of veteran claims for benefits.[9]

     

    In the meantime, there is still not much access to mental health services by those in the military with psychological disorders stemming from combat-on or off the field. Highlighted in The Washington Post article was a suicide attempt by an Army Lieutenant in Iraq in early 2007 and then again at Walter Reed just three days ago. An Army medic (also at Walter Reed) who attempted suicide after three tours in Iraq asserted to the reporter taking the story the pressing need for trained psychiatrists and psychologists who understand war, combat and battlefield experiences. This same Army medic was given a 1-800 number to call for urgent services when she finds herself overwhelmed; but, she recognizes this is not enough and calls out for one-on-one interaction with a trained doctor who has personally experienced war. Finding veterans trained in treating PTSD and other mental health issues is severely lacking. The need for peer-to-peer professional support is essential.

     

    Clearly evident is the time-lag in the initial recognition of the problem and then the subsequent governmental delay for the "report" requests for unbiased data, Congressional money allotments, and the go-ahead to move forward in meeting the mental healthcare needs of service men and women. Too many are suffering and dying while trying to combat all the red tape to receive help for their time in service. Will the red tape finally be removed? If so, how quickly? We all know far too well what happens when mental health services are not available or our mental health needs are not taken seriously. The rise in suicides and attempted suicides rates does not surprise me. I find it haunting, shameful and disturbing, but not surprising.

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    [1]" Soldier Suicides at Record Level" The Washington Post, January 31, 2008

    [2] "Soldier Suicides at Record Level" The Washington Post, January 31, 2008

    [3] "Soldier Suicides at Record Level" The Washington Post, January 31, 2008 (quote attributed to Col Cameron Ritchie)

    [4] "Soldier Suicides at Record Level" The Washington Post, January 31, 2008 (quote attributed to Col Cameron Ritchie)

    [5] "Posttraumatic Stress Disorder: Diagnosis and Assessment" Board on Population Health and Public Health Practice, Institute of Medicine, June 16,2006

    [6] "Posttraumatic Stress Disorder: Diagnosis and Assessment" Board on Population Health and Public Health Practice, Institute of Medicine, June 16,2006

    [7] [7]"Posttraumatic Stress Disorder: Diagnosis and Assessment" Board on Population Health and Public Health Practice, Institute of Medicine, June 16,2006

    [8] Press Release Chet Edwards (D-TX), Chairman, House Appropriations Subcommittee on Military Construction, Veteran's Affairs, and Related Agencies. "Edwards: A New Day for America's Veterans, Democratic Congress Keeps Promises as Historic Funding Increase Becomes Reality" January 17, 2008

    [9] Press Release Chet Edwards (D-TX), Chairman, House Appropriations Subcommittee on Military Construction, Veteran's Affairs, and Related Agencies. "Edwards: A New Day for America's Veterans, Democratic Congress Keeps Promises as Historic Funding Increase Becomes Reality" January 17, 2008