By Elizabeth M. Lorge
Army News Service
WASHINGTON – The Army is taking steps to meet the rising suicide rates among soldiers head-on, the service's top mental-health expert told reporters at the Pentagon Thursday.
With 102 confirmed suicides among active-duty and activated reserve-component soldiers, 2006 had the highest number of cases since 1990. To date, 89 suicide deaths were confirmed in 2007 and 32 cases are still pending.
Suicide attempts have also climbed exponentially since the Army began tracking them in 2002, rising from 350 to approximately 2,100 last year, although some non-suicidal self-injuries and a new electronic medical records system may account for part of the increase, said Col. Elspeth C. Richie, psychiatry consultant to the Army's surgeon general.
"The loss of any soldier is a tragedy and while we're talking about suicides in this case, Army leadership takes the loss of any soldier seriously," said retired Col. Dennis W. Dingle, head of the Army well-being branch at the Office of Deputy Chief of Staff for G-1 (Personnel). "The Army is committed to applying the resources and developing the policies and adapting our programs and policies to support soldiers, civilians and their families.
"We have targeted our efforts for suicide-prevention awareness, specifically to soldiers and leaders as part of our professional military education system. It's become institutionalized during the deployment process. But it goes beyond that. It's an integrated effort across the entire Army."
The majority of 2006 suicides took place among soldiers in the United States. Seventy-two had either never deployed or been back from theater for over a year, eight had been back from deployment for less than a year, 27 occurred in Iraq and three in Afghanistan.
The vast majority, Richie said, occur among young, enlisted males aged 18-24, but there has been a rising number among older soldiers, and in 2006 the Army saw the highest number ever among females: 11. Most, 71 percent, involved firearms.
According to Richie, the Army is closely watching for any correlation between the length and number of deployments and the number of suicides, but the most common cause of suicide is strained relationships. While repeated deployments and post traumatic stress disorder certainly add stress to relationships, she said, it's unusual for them to be the direct cause of a suicide.
Lt. Col. Ran Dolinger, a chaplain at G-1, said that while he was deployed one of his soldiers attended suicide-prevention training and seemed fine, but within an hour had received a call from his wife and killed himself. He stressed the importance of programs like Strong Bonds in building and maintaining healthy, strong marriages.
As part of the Army Family Covenant, the Army is spending $1.4 billion this year on quality-of-life programs, including healthcare, for soldiers and Families. These programs are crucial, said Dolinger and Dingle, because as the Army makes life better for soldiers, they will be far less likely to kill themselves.
Richie visited Iraq in October, where she led a team assessing the mental healthcare available to soldiers, and found that access to mental-healthcare providers and chaplains was good. The Army has more than 200 behavioral-health professionals in Iraq and has just added more than 100 in the United States.
After conducting interviews and focus groups with experts and soldiers of all ranks, the team developed 55 recommendations to improve suicide-prevention training and care.
The team found that previous training attempts, which focused on stateside, garrison environments, were not effective in theater. Soldiers want to know how to recognize problems and what to do to help buddies. Senior leaders are generally supportive and encouraging when soldiers need help, the team found, but soldiers are themselves reluctant to face condemnation from their peers.
This stigma, Richie said, is both the most difficult and the most important obstacle to overcome when it comes to getting soldiers help.
The Army hopes the battle buddy system will help. Based on a decades-old tactic and the Warrior Ethos' statement "I will never leave a fallen comrade," it shows soldiers that someone will always look out for them and that it's okay to ask for help.
All soldiers receive an ACE of hearts playing card to carry with them. A reminder to soldiers to care enough and have the courage to find out what's going on, and to never leave soldiers who might harm themselves alone, even to get help, ACE stands for: Ask your buddy, Care for your buddy, Escort your buddy.
Battlemind training, which is required both before and after deployment, also reminds soldiers who may be having a hard time that they are not alone. It tells leaders, soldiers, family members and even Army civilians how to recognize soldiers in distress and how to get them help.
"We've got the multiple portals to care through chaplains, through primary care, through behavioral health, through leadership. We also need to make sure that family members know who to call if they're worried about their soldier. We need to involve the whole family and the whole community in this effort," Richie said.