With a month and a half remaining in 2009, , the number of suicides in the Army's active duty ranks already equals last year's record high of 140 and is expected to climb, an Army official said today.
Furthermore, the 71 suicides among Army National Guardsmen and reservists not serving on active duty has already surpassed last year's total of 57. The Army's active duty numbers includes National Guardsmen and reservists who are currently serving on active duty.
As with last year's record high suicide numbers, a third of this year's 140 suicides have been among soldiers who have never deployed.
At a Pentagon briefing to talk about the Army's suicide prevention efforts, Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Peter Chiarelli didn't mince words.
"This is horrible, and I do not want to downplay the significance of these numbers in any way," he said. "We talk about these incidents of suicide using figures and percentages. However, the grim reality is each case represents an individual, a person with family and friends and a future ahead of him or her. Every single loss is devastating."
Chiarelli said suicide is the single hardest issue he's ever had to face in his long military career.
"This challenge of suicides is without a doubt the toughest I have had to take and tackle in my 37 years in the Army," he said. "Each event is unique and complicated, and there are no easy answers or solutions."
Despite the rise in suicides this year, Chiarelli said he sees progress in the Army's efforts to stem the increase, noting that 40, or about a third, of this year's suicides occurred in January and February.
Since then, the numbers have reflected a downward trend throughout the year, though in October the number jumped to 16, an increase Chiarelli said he hopes was an aberration.
"If you were to simply consider these months [January and February] or the total number for the year, you could erroneously conclude that the Army's efforts are not working," Chiarelli said.
Army Needs More Mental Health Professionals
Chiarelli attributed the "reduction in the number of suicides to the many actions we have taken since February to inform and educate leaders and soldiers on this important issue."
The biggest effort has been the launch of the Army's Comprehensive Soldier Fitness Program, which puts as much emphasis on psychological and mental strength as the Army has historically put into its physical fitness programs.
In addition to creating a Suicide Prevention Task Force, the Army is also working with the National Institute of Mental Health on a five-year study to determine how to provide better information for the Army to tackle the issue.
Even though an additional 900 mental health professionals have been hired the last two years, Chiarelli said about 800 more are still needed, but said the Army is having trouble meeting that requirement. He attributes that to an overall lack of mental health professionals in the civilian sector, which makes it tough to get the additional numbers the Army would like.
Chiarelli said he is encouraged by the possibility that online assistance to soldiers and their families through the military's Tricare medical system could expland access to mental health care services throughout the force.
In another indication of how online assistance is useful, he cited a recent program at Trippler Army Medical Center in Hawaii where an Army battalion returning home from combat received mental health evaluations.
A portion of the unit was provided a face-to-face meeting with a mental health specialists while others did so via the Internet. Doctors participating in the online evaluations said they felt they could make successful evaluations this way while using a technique that younger soldiers seemed to prefer, Chiarelli said.
Because there may be a link between some of the suicides and substance abuse, Chiarelli said he would like to bring on an additional 300 substance abuse counselors to help at bases in the United States, but said he was "having a heck of a time getting the number I need."
Difficulties in Spotting Suicide Trends
As part of that effort, he said a pilot program where soldiers can step forward with substance abuse problems without their superiors receiving automatic notification has shown "tremendous success."
Fort Campbell, Ky., had the highest number of suicides at any U.S. base with 18. Earlier this year, commanders grew so concerned about the suicide numbers at Fort Campbell that they ordered a three-day stand-down at the base to focus on suicide prevention.
Emblematic of the difficulty in spotting trends, while the number of suicides at Fort Campbell have risen this year, other larger bases have seen decreases this year. For example, Fort Bragg, N.C., has twice the population of Fort Campbell, but experienced six suicides this year.
Fort Hood, Texas, is even larger with a population of nearly 60,000 and it has had 11 suicides. Chiarelli noted that many of the suicides at these bases occurred in the first five months of the year.