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july/august 2009

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BY TOM BERGER

Earlier this year, the media began to report that Army suicides were becoming more and more frequent. For example, during the first four months of 2009, 91 soldiers committed suicide, including suspected suicides still under investigation. If Army suicides continue at the rate recorded from January 1 to April 30, more than 270 soldiers will be dead by their own hands at the end of this year. That 2009 number compares to 140 for all of last year.

Thus it seems perfectly reasonable for people to ask why this is happening. The great majority of mental health experts believe the suicide risk factors include the number of deployments. But in early March, Gen. Peter W. Chiarelli, Army Vice Chief of Staff, laid that possibility to rest when he said during a conference call with reporters that, after reviewing suicide statistics for 2008, multiple combat deployments actually make soldiers less likely to commit suicide. “The rational person might think the more deployments, the more likely you are to commit suicide, but we saw exactly the opposite,” Gen. Chiarelli said. “A certain resiliency seems to grow in an individual who has multiple deployments.”

Col. Elspeth Ritchie, the Army’s top psychiatrist, was also part of the conference call. She explained that legal, occupational, spousal, and substance-abuse problems are often involved in these suicides. “Sometimes it’s hard to identify what was the actual precipitant,” she said.

Subsequently in early April, the Army issued new guidelines to military commanders in an effort to stem the rising toll of soldier suicides. According to an AP article, the plan was approved by Gen. Chiarelli after he visited a half-dozen American military bases and talked to commanders and staff who care for soldiers and their families. The plan includes hiring more mental health workers and tightening the way officials handle drug testing, health screening, and a host of other long-standing procedures that in some cases became lax, according to Army officials.

Chiarelli also has instituted regular conference calls with commanders around the globe—hours-long sessions in which each commander reports on suicides in his region and officials examine each case to learn how they might prevent more. This group has examined cases in which it was clear that soldiers were troubled.

At the time, Army officials didn’t release any details of the plan. The question is: Will it work?

On May 27, however, the AP reported that “regular duties” were suspended for three days at Fort Campbell, Ky. (which leads Army posts with eleven confirmed suicides this year) so commanders could focus on suicide prevention training and identify and help soldiers who are struggling with the stress of war and who are most at risk for killing themselves. “Frequent deployments by the division since 2001 have contributed to the stress suffered by soldiers at Fort Campbell,” said Col. Ken Brown, the head of chaplains at the installation.

In a related matter, two studies presented at the May 27 American Psychiatric Association meetings in San Francisco were quoted in a Medscape on-line article as saying that “Women veterans are two to three times more likely to commit suicide than nonveteran women. Furthermore, female veterans are more likely to be young and use firearms to commit suicide compared with their civilian counterparts, who tend to choose other methods—commonly, drug overdose.”

Lastly, the Army and NIMH are preparing to fund a five-year, $50 million suicide study. Rumor has it that there will be no outside oversight of the study.

 

 

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