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."
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. 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." 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."