In 2006, the U.S. Army saw its highest rate of suicides in 26 years, according to a report released today. The number of soldier suicides rose to 101 in 2006, up from 88 in 2005. Aside from those numbers, the data also showed that more than one out of four soldiers who committed suicide did so while serving in Iraq or Afghanistan.
While there was "limited evidence" to support the suspicion that repeated deployments put soldiers at a higher risk of suicide, the report found a significant relationship between suicide attempts and the number of days deployed in Iraq, Afghanistan or nearby countries.
Citing failed personal relationships, legal and financial problems, and the stress of their jobs as factors behind the soldiers' suicides, the Army has strengthened its efforts to bolster its suicide prevention program by increasing the number of psychiatrists and mental health professionals by 25 percent, teaching soldiers to recognize the signs of mental health problems in themselves and their comrades, and, perhaps most difficult, working to stem the stigma associated with seeking help for mental issues.
Dr. Jay White, an outreach specialist at the Hartford Vet Center in Wethersfield, Conn., was one of the many military counselors deployed to the front lines to help soldiers cope with the psychological stresses of combat. He recently sat down with ABC News to discuss the issue of mental health in the military, the ways in which the Army is trying to help soldiers deal with the emotional repercussions of combat, and the unseen toll of the war.
Deployed to Iraq twice, once in 2003 during the initial invasion and again for a longer period of time in 2005-2006, White is familiar with the sights, sounds and stresses of life "in theater," as he calls it.
"During our first deployment in 2003, I was with a small four-man team that was embedded with the 3rd Infantry Division. Essentially, what we did was critical event debriefing. So, anytime that the battalion had gotten under attack or firefights or ambushes or anything like that, what we would do is talk with each member of the team as a group and break down what happened," he said.
On his second deployment, since many soldiers felt more comfortable meeting individually, White and his fellow counselors set up a clinic for the soldiers, "so soldiers, Marines, sailors would all come see us in a one-on-one confidential type setting," he said.
"When you're wearing the uniform, when you're on the ground, when you're out there wanting to talk to somebody at the mental health trailer, that carries a stigma. So for a lot of the soldiers, they didn't want to talk to a whole group right away so we made it available that they could see us individually. That way it was a little more private, they were a little more open to talking about their issues, what their fears were, without having to talk to 10 different soldiers from all different units, different ranks all in one room."
White admits that even he was shaken by his time in Iraq.