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.
"There were many events over there that were disturbing, more so from the humanity side of it, because we were out on the streets, you saw what it was like in Iraq, especially when the war was just starting out -- a lot of things were bothersome," he said. "The second deployment, it's just disturbing sometimes when you go back to the same theater and you smell those smells that you thought you would never smell again, when you thought, when you left two years ago, that you would never go back again, but then there you are and it's hard to imagine that you're back to smell those smells, see the sights, feel that hot temperature and the dust. It's hard to last. It's an endurance test, and it can be pretty disturbing."
While many people equal physical toughness with psychological toughness, White points out that that is certainly not the case.
"I talked to soldiers who had had to do some things that they had never done before and admit to those things and to just see them, how big and strong they were, but how crushed they were on the inside, that would be pretty disturbing," he said.
Above all, White advises his patients to put themselves and their physical and mental well-being first.
"A lot of people think that you're a soldier first, human second and that's not the case," he said. "We're proud people when we go and join the military, and we go over and do something and we have to turn it on when we get there and, often times, you forget that you're human. So I try to relay that message to [soldiers] that you have to remember that you are human and you have to remember to take care of yourself first."
Unlike most psychologists, White believes that going through the same training, as well as living the same experiences as his patients has actually made him better at understanding and treating the soldiers.
"It's important for us to relate to them on that [personal] level, so we don't just sit there and ask them 'Name, rank what are you doing? Are you sleeping? This, that.' It's much more human. We need to get into what's going on with them, let them know that some of these things are normal -- the anxiety they're going through, especially during the readjustment periods, it's OK that they're not sleeping, or it's OK that they feel scared or emotionally numb," he said. "A lot of people, when they come home from Iraq or Afghanistan, have a misconception that they can handle it on their own, but that isn't the case for everybody."
Ultimately, White states that breaking down the stigma of seeking help for psychological trauma is key to helping soldiers deal with life on the frontlines and readjust to life on the home front.
"We're trying to make the point that you need to talk to someone, that coming home from the theater is not as easy as you may have thought, and that it's normal to go talk to somebody. So we're trying to mainstream the idea that going to talk to a counselor is a healthy beneficial thing to do," he said. "I always tell veterans that I talk to that I wish they could be a fly on the wall. They'd feel much more normal if they heard the other hundreds of guys before them sit there and talk about particularly similar issues."