The U.S. Army on Thursday reported a record number of suicides in a single month among active duty, Guard and Reserve troops, despite an aggressive program of counseling, training and education aimed at suicide prevention.
Suicides for the first half of the year are up 12 percent over 2009. In June, 32 soldiers are believed to have committed suicide, including 21 on active duty. […]
Army officials have been grappling in recent years with how to prevent suicides among soldiers dealing with the stress of multiple deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan. Last year, suicide claimed the lives of 163 soldiers on active duty and 82 Guard and Reserve soldiers not on active duty.
The problem is not isolated to the Army. In 2009, 52 Marines and 48 Sailors took their own lives in 2009, according to a report by the American Forces Press Service. Air Force officials reported 41 active-duty suicides, a 12.5 per 100,000 ratio, in 2009.
The biggest challenge in prevention, military officials say, is identifying those National Guard and Reserve forces at risk but aren’t currently on active duty, where they can be more closely observed for mental health problems and suicidal tendencies. […]
Brig. Gen. Richard Thomas said the Army is piloting a project to provide counseling time to entire battalions and brigades immediately after completing deployments. A similar approach is being applied to detecting mild traumatic brain injuries, which can lead to increased risk for mental health problems, said Thomas, now an assistant surgeon general.
“What we are doing is focusing on the early symptoms of traumatic brain injury and post traumatic stress disorder so we can get treatment earlier, rather than waiting for these guys to have chronic, long-term problems,” he said.
Some soldiers will never step foot inside a behavioral health clinic; they fear the stigma, and they fear also that a diagnosis could lead to a medical discharge, said Dr. Tangeneare Singh, a combat veteran herself and chief of the department of behavioral health at Fort Campbell.
So any soldier who walks into one of the several medical clinics at Fort Campbell, whether it’s for a twisted ankle or trouble sleeping, is screened for depression and PTSD symptoms.
Among the Army suicides reported for June, 11 were Guard or Reserve members who were not activated at the time, but included seven who had been previously deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan.
Of the 32 cases, only four have been confirmed suicides, while official rulings are still pending on the remaining 28. In the past, nearly all of those reported suicides were eventually confirmed.
NPR recently did a series of reports on mild traumatic brain injuries, including an in-depth investigation on the (in)ability of soldiers to get the care they not only need but that they do ask for. Here’s the main website for what NPR has titled “Brain Wars” and here are the links for the two main reports that led to a Congressional investigation, resignations, and, hopefully, changes: part 1 and part 2. Part 2 nearly made me cry in the car while I was listening to it.
Here is another NPR report/interview (from June 21, 2010) about suicides in the military that has a jarring lead-in:
In 2010, almost as many U.S. troops around the world have committed suicide as have been killed fighting in Afghanistan. Through May of 2010, 163 men and women in the Army killed themselves. That rate is on pace to more than double the total for all of 2008.
In the interview Colonel Philbrick, director of the US Army Suicide Prevention Task Force) talks about how difficult it is to diagnose and treat mild traumatic brain issues that may lead to suicide:
Col. PHILBRICK: Well, when you talk about the issue of posttraumatic stress or traumatic brain injury, my boss likes to refer to it as the hidden illness, so to speak, of the war. Because you look at the soldier – as you look at the civilian or the family member – you see no outward signs of their injury. There’s no loss of a limb or bleeding or something of that nature.
But through the process that is rather, you know, basic in its approach right now, we don’t know a lot about how the brain operates. It’s matured over time. But I would love to be able to give you the same analogy that I do in relation to amputees, where you can go to Walter Reed and you can find a soldier who has lost a limb of some nature, and you can tell them with a degree of certainty that they’re going to get -things are going to get better, that our treatments – I just can’t do the same today when it related to behavioral health issues.