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American Forces Press Service

Army Releases Suicide Data, Promotes Prevention Programs

By Sgt. Sara Wood, USA
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Aug. 16, 2007 – Though its number of suicides increased in 2006, the Army’s suicide rate still is lower than the rate for the same age and gender group in the overall U.S. population, according to a report the service released today.

The Army Suicide Event Report, which tracks suicide attempts and completions and the factors involved, showed that in 2006 there were 99 suicides within the Army, 30 of which occurred in Iraq or Afghanistan. This is an increase from 87 suicides in 2005 and 67 in 2004.

According to the report, the Army’s suicide rate for 2006 was 17.3 suicides per 100,000 soldiers. This compares to the overall U.S. population rate, for the same age and gender group, of roughly 19 suicides per 100,000 people.

“The loss of any member of the Army family is a tragedy, and the Army has made prevention of suicide a top priority,” Army Col. Dennis W. Dingle, director of the Army’s Human Resources Policy Directorate, told reporters at a media roundtable today. Dingle noted that the number of confirmed suicides in the Army has been rising since 2003, and leaders are emphasizing suicide prevention and education programs to counter that trend.

“Our message to you today is that the Army recognizes this issue and is taking deliberate steps to mitigate those risks that may contribute to suicidal behavior,” Dingle said. “Our prevention efforts do help our soldiers and their families deal with the challenges they face every day.”

A majority of suicides in 2006 involved firearms, the report says, and the most common contributing factors were failed personal relationships and occupational, legal and financial problems. The report did not find a direct relationship between increased deployments and suicides, Dingle said.

Army officials do recognize that increased deployments put strain on soldiers and on their relationships, so deployment frequency and length was closely examined in this report, Army Col. Elspeth C. Ritchie, behavioral health psychiatry consultant to the U.S. Army surgeon general, said at the roundtable. While the data has not shown a correlation between those factors and suicides, other studies, such as the Mental Health Assessment Team, have found that longer and more frequent deployments have increased the rates of post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety and depression, she said.

“We have not yet seen an increase in suicides in multiple deployers or those who have been there longer; we may over time,” Ritchie said. “We’re certainly looking for that and certainly wanting to do everything we can if we do see that as an issue to mitigate any of those factors there. … The senior Army leadership is paying very, very close attention to these issues.”

This report is one of many ways the Army is working to gather information and improve its suicide prevention and training, Ritchie said. The Army is focused not only on preventing suicide, but also on increasing awareness about mental health issues and decreasing the stigma associated with seeking mental health care, she said.

In mid-July, the Army began a new training program for post-traumatic stress disorder, brain injuries and stress. This training will be given to every soldier -- active-duty, National Guard and Army Reserve -- within 90 days, Ritchie said. The Army also is taking the data gathered in this report and others and integrating it into their suicide prevention and training program, she said. For example, the Army’s suicide prevention has historically focused on young men, but lessons learned recently have caused them to expand the program to focus on women and older men as well.

The Army also is working on hiring 250 more mental health professionals, and all the Army’s medical personnel are being trained in recognizing post-traumatic stress disorder, brain injuries and suicide risk, Ritchie said. In addition, the Army is instituting programs to reduce the stigma associated with seeking mental health care, she said.

“We need to make sure that all our soldiers know that it’s OK to come in and get help, and we’re there to offer it for you,” Ritchie said. “I think it is very important for everybody to recognize how difficult a completed suicide is on the soldier’s family, on the soldier’s unit, on the friends, on the whole system, and the pain and hurt of a suicide lasts for years.”

It’s difficult to know how effective a suicide prevention program is, Dingle said. However, Army leaders have taken a great deal of feedback from soldiers in the field about what solutions would work for them, and have integrated it into their training programs, he said.

“We continue to adapt the program to get to training and awareness training and intervention techniques that will help our soldiers deal with those stressors that could ultimately lead to suicide,” he said.

The feedback from the new training programs has been positive, Ritchie said. She said she has taught some classes herself and has been surprised at how willing soldiers are to open up and talk about their experiences. The Army will be able to track the effectiveness of the programs by monitoring the increase in referrals to behavioral health services, she said. The first data collection for this evaluation will be around Sept. 1.

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