Friday, January 30, 2009

Army Suicide Rate Increasing

Image credit: U.S. Army

The caption reads: 1st Lt. Erik Wiesehan, of Canby, Ore., maintains security during Brig. Gen. Robin Swanís visit to a Husseniyah marketplace Jan. 22. Wiesehan is the essential services coordinator for 1st Battalion, 27th Infantry Regiment "Wolfhounds," 2nd Stryker Brigade Combat Team "Warrior," 25th Infantry Division, currently attached to 3rd BCT, 4th Inf. Div., Multi-National Division - Baghdad. Swan is the deputy commanding general for the 4th Infantry Division and MND-B.

The Los Angeles Times reports:

The suicide rate among Army soldiers reached its highest level in three decades in 2008, military officials said Thursday in a report that pointed to the inadequacy of anti-suicide efforts undertaken in recent years.

At least 128 Army soldiers took their own lives last year -- an estimated suicide rate of 20.2 per 100,000, a sharp increase from the 2007 rate of 16.8.

Army Sees Sharp Rise In Suicide Rate
American military involvement in Vietnam largely ended in 1973. The article indicates later that the Army didn't start tracking suicide rates until 1978, so how this compares to the Vietnam era is likely a subject of conjecture. The military, the Army in particular, had a difficult time after the war, with high rates of drug abuse and other disciplinary issues. There seems little doubt what the cause is this time:

"Why do the numbers keep going up? We cannot tell you," Army Secretary Pete Geren said.

Army officials believe that contributing factors include emotional and psychological stress caused by repeated combat deployments, along with the toll that the tours have taken on marriages.

About a third of suicides occur during deployments abroad, a third after deployments and a third among soldiers who never deploy.

"We all come to the table believing stress is a factor," said Gen. Peter W. Chiarelli, the Army's vice chief of staff.

Army Sees Sharp Rise In Suicide Rate
Caution diagnosing such a phenomenon is wise, since it really is the result of a great many individuals making the decision to end their lives. Every decision has its own reasoning. Still, the high rates of deployments overseas to a combat zone probably have something to do with it, and the Army admits as much.

Beyond that, though, all I really can do is ask questions. What can be done to keep this situation from getting worse, besides ending the need for the deployments? I have to wonder if the recent appearance of dimwitted faith-based suicide prevention strategies have anything to do with this:

Here at the Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF), we get countless complaints about religiously based mental health and counseling programs, which, over the past few years, have been systematically replacing proven psychological and medical approaches to a multitude of issues faced by military personnel.
In March 2008, this presentation, titled "A New Approach To Suicide Prevention: Developing Purpose-Driven Airmen," was shown at a commander's call that was mandatory for an estimated 1,000 of Lakenheath's Air Force personnel, and sent out by email to the entire base of over 5,000 the following day. As the use of the phrase "Purpose-Driven" in its title implies, also incorporated into this presentation is the wisdom of presidential candidate inquisitor Rick Warren, author of The Purpose Driven Life, a book that, second only to the Bible itself, is the most heavily promoted religious book in the military.

Creationism: The Latest In Military Suicide Prevention
While the particular example that author Chris Rodda cited was an Air Force program, it's hard to imagine the Army is untouched by this movement. Army Secretary Geren, who was quoted in that report, has been associated in the past with a Christian evangelical organization called "Christian Embassy".

Another question would be, is there any difference in how suicides are being reported now? Back in April, I wrote about Sen. Patty Murray's (D-WA) efforts to get the Veterans Administration to come clean about the suicides they'd been noticing among their clients:

Senator Patty Murray, D-WA, said yesterday that she thinks the Veterans Administration is vastly understating the numbers of soldier suicides:

The Veterans Administration has lied about the number of veterans who have attempted suicide, Sen. Patty Murray said Wednesday, citing internal e-mails that put the number at 12,000 a year while the department was publicly saying it was fewer than 800.

VA Lying About Number Of Veteran Suicides, Senator Charges

VA Caught Witholding Information
It's at least possible that fallout from that scandal has caused the Defense Department to be more ready to count a deaths as suicides than it was before. If the Army had to adjust the way it counts suicides, then that might affect the number, as well. Based on this quote from the New York Times, though, that seems unlikely:

At a news briefing, the secretary of the Army, Pete Geren, said the Army wanted to bolster its efforts to prevent suicide and was prepared to allocate the resources, “human and financial,” to do so. The Army had stepped up its efforts in the last two years as the numbers had begun to climb.

But, Mr. Geren cautioned, there are no easy answers. “Is there a silver bullet out there?” he said. “I’m confident there isn’t.”

The Army said that in the last year it had hired more general practitioners, often the first health care providers to come into contact with soldiers in distress. It also hired 250 more providers of mental health care, and wants to hire an additional 50.

Suicides of Soldiers Reach High of Nearly 3 Decades
That would indicate a problem of long standing, not a statistical glitch.

Hopefully, with a new Presidential Administration that's friendlier to science, proper psychological procedures will replace religious nonsense, and the added mental health professionals may help deal with the added stress.


Annie said...

It's even more complex that what you so ably describe. There are also the uncounted people who are given general discharges for "pre-existing conditions" so that the military can squirm out of providing care to people with mental illness. I don't think these folks are counted in military and veterans statistics because they fall into an abyss of care - the VA doesn't cover them as they lose all veterans health benefits.

There is also the US policy of criminalizing poverty, joblessness, homelessness and mental illness. Given no realistic future with being able to sustain oneself and/or family, suicide is not an unrealistic option.

The US has codified Dickens' surplus population and created an unsustainable and unbearable situation for tens of thousands, if not millions, of people - those who are vulnerable to predation.

The public keeps people with mental illness at ten-foot-pole length and keeps the problems they suffer intentionally abstract, stigmatized and of the lowest priority.

There is no pointing fingers because we are all accountable.

Cujo359 said...

You're right, Annie, I'd forgotten about the discharges, although strictly speaking they shouldn't affect the Army suicide rate. They should affect the VA's rate, though. Probably one reason I hadn't mentioned it.

In the past the DoD has also been rather creative with how it defines "in-theatre" casualties. I share your skepticism about the DoD's estimates of the magnitude of the problem. But assuming the Army is consistent in how it counts suicides, that problem is clearly getting worse.