Suicides Still A Problem for U.S. Army

Although the annual suicide rate is down, Army officials are still concerned.

January 18, 2011, 8:12 PM

Jan. 19, 2010 -- Army statistics released Wednesday show the first annual decrease in suicides among active duty soldiers in six years. But the news is tempered by a significant increase in the number of suicides among Army Reservists and National Guardsmen who are not on active duty.

The 156 suicides among active duty soldiers for calendar year 2010 were six less than 2009's record high of 162. National Guardsmen and Army Reservists mobilized to active duty are included in this number.

But a tough year was made even tougher as the number of suicides among National Guardsmen and Army reservists not on active duty were almost double what they were in 2009.

The Army keeps a separate record of suicides among Army reservists and National Guardsmen who have not been mobilized. There were 145 suicides among these citizen soldiers in 2010, up from 80 suicides in 2009.

The increase in suicides among these citizen soldiers has been of mounting concern to senior Army officials who worry about the access to mental health professionals these reservists may not have in the civilian sector.

Army vice Chief of Staff General Peter Chiarelli said reducing suicides within its ranks is a top priority for the Army and that he is seeing signs of progress in the Army's significant efforts at suicide prevention. As the Army's suicide numbers have risen steadily the past five years it has launched broad campaigns to raise awareness about suicidal behavior and increasing access to behavioral health specialists.

"I believe unequivocally that there would be higher numbers if we did not have the focus of the leadership and the programs that we've rolled out to get at this problem," he said. "I've got to believe that the involvement of our leadership and the programs that we've rolled out have saved soldiers' lives."

But trying to stem the increase in suicides among reservists and national guardsmen not serving on active duty is a much more difficult challenge for the Army given how infrequently these soldiers have contact with colleagues or leaders who might be able to identify suicidal behavior

For example, Lt. Gen. Jack Stultz, chief of the Army Reserve, said Reservists see their leaders only twice a month. He said efforts are underway to have unit leaders reach out more to their troops beyond the limited times when they are on duty. He said there is also an effort to train family members about suicide prevention so they can be a part of the process because "we've got to figure out how to maintain contact and awareness of what's going on in the soldier's life the other 28 days that we don't seem them."

Of most concern was the dramatic spike among National Guardsmen not on active duty. There were 53 more suicides in 2010 than in 2009. Maj. Gen. Raymond Carpenter, the acting director of the Army National Guard, said pinning down possible causes for the increase has proven difficult. Deployments to war zones, previously considered a trigger, have been reduced. The economy, another source of stress, has slowly improved, he said.

"The bottom line here is, as we do the analysis, it's not a single thing," said Carpenter. "It is a combination of a group of things that come together." He suggested the increase might be tied to an increasing suicide trend in society as a whole and that the Guard's numbers might reflect that increase.

Suicide Prevention High Army Priority

Whatever the reasons, the Army has mounted significant suicide-prevention campaigns to help soldiers spot the warning signs of suicidal behavior among their ranks. The latest campaign is called "Shoulder to Shoulder: I Will Never Quit on Life" and includes a 15-minute training video that features candid interviews with soldiers who have attempted suicide.

The Army has also collaborated with the National Institute of Mental Health for a first of its kind five- year, $50-million research program better to understand why some soldiers are choosing suicide. Chiarelli said today that preliminary results from the study had provided some useful information.

When the training video was released this summer, Chiarelli said in an ABC News interview that any progress in reducing Army suicides can be uneven.

"It is extremely frustrating because even when you see the numbers go down in a month it - really doesn't offer you anything," said Chiarelli. "I mean, there's still a needless loss of life that takes place."