Suicide in the Military
Candace L. Clark
October 7, 2009
Stressed by war and long overseas tours, U.S. soldiers killed themselves last year at the highest rate on record, the toll rising for a fourth straight year and even surpassing the suicide rate among comparable civilians. Army leaders said they were doing everything they could think of to curb the deaths and appealed for more mental health professionals to join and help out. Clearly, the military is going above and beyond to try and prevent further lives from being taken.
According to the sociologist Emile Durkheim, when a person has a very strong degree of social connectedness, he or she may identify with its values or causes to such an extent that the sense of his or her own personal identity is diminished. For example, the values of the military predominated over the individual’s values. Such is the case in altruistic suicide, which has been defined as the “the self destruction demanded by a society... as a price for being a member of that society.” (DeSpelder & Strickland).
The highest officer in each service told lawmakers they are working hard to fix the problems — devoting more senior leadership attention, instituting more and better training, attacking the stigma of asking for help, hiring more mental health providers and working across agency lines to keep an eye on and fund care for at-risk troops who transition back to civilian life. The specific steps range from implementing or strengthening “battle buddy” programs to ensure troops look out for each other; embedding, as the Marines have done, more mental health professionals within units; improving the “handoff” from the war zone to providers back home; and ensuring better continuity of care when troops transition from military to VA care, officials said. (Air Force Times, 2009)
This is the first time since the Vietnam War that the rate of suicide in the Army, about 20 deaths per 100,000 soldiers, has surpassed the civilian suicide rate. Last year in the Army alone there were 140 suicides, translating into a rate of 20.2 per 100,000 soldiers. Also, the number of Army suicides increased for the fourth consecutive year, according to the Army’s 2008 Suicide Data report released on January 29, 2009. The Army’s high suicide rate is attributable in large part to deployment stress, Gen. Peter Chiarelli, Army vice chief of staff stated. Long deployments and other factors including job-related difficulties and financial, personal and legal problems are other contributing factors. “A high mission tempo clearly can place strain on a military, and with wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, 12 months or longer deployment rotations and 12 months or less downtime at home, the Army certainly has been busy,” Chiarelli said. The Army found about 35 percent of suicides came after soldiers returned home from deployment, while another 35 percent of suicides occurred among soldiers with no history of deployment. 30 percent occurred while soldiers were in the field.
To help combat the suicide increases, the Army has entered into an unprecedented five-year, $50 million partnership with the National Institute of Mental Health (American Forces Press Service). The purpose of the study is to understand the urgency of the situation, to identify risks and prevention factors, and to develop new and better intervention. The knowledge will benefit both soldiers and families as well as the civilian population.
One of the key issues the Army has been trying to address is the feeling among many soldiers that seeking psychological help is a sign of weakness and could be harmful to their career. Since Oct. 1, an average of three hot line callers per day have identified themselves as being on active duty, said Kathryn Power, director of the Center for Mental Health Services in the Department of Health and Human Services. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said that indicates many conflicted troops continue to feel...