biggest step toward preventing suicides
|WASHINGTON, D.C. — In 2008, the Army experienced
for the first time, suicide rates higher than the civilian population.
In the same year, the Army entered an agreement with the National
Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) to find out why.
While the NIMH study will take five years to complete, the institute
recently met with Army leaders to provide some preliminary insights,
said Brig. Gen. Colleen McGuire, director, Suicide Prevention Task
Force. One finding was that some 53 percent of the American population
that replicated the Army population has had some level of mental or
behavioral illness, McGuire said. That includes such things as alcohol
problems, eating disorders, depression or anxiety.
“We can probably assume that’s the same in our own population,” she
Additionally, McGuire said, NIMH has said those with post traumatic
stress disorder (PTSD) are six times more likely to commit suicide — and
those individuals, she said, often take as many as 12 years before
“Unfortunately, in that period of time, before they finally recognize
they have PTSD and seek treatment, there has probably been some attempts
at self-medication,” she said.
In November, the Army experienced 12 suicides, two less than in October
— and while McGuire said the monthly suicide rate for the Army has
trended down since the beginning of the year, 2009’s numbers are
expected to be even higher than 2008’s numbers — coming in at 156.
The exact causes of suicide in the Army are numerous and hard to pin
down — and it’s not just Soldiers who have deployed. Some 30 percent of
Army suicides are those who have never deployed, McGuire said. There’s
also relationship issues, financial issues, substance abuse issues and
Uniform Code of Military Justice problems.
“All of these things spiral to the point where they are trying to find
some emotional relief,” she said. “And that comes in the form of flawed
thinking that results in their own death. It’s hard to label any one
variable as the cause.”
McGuire said the Army isn’t waiting for the results from NIMH or the
2009 suicide numbers to start attacking the problem.
“Probably the most important step the Army took this year was the
recognition by the Army leadership that we did in fact have a problem,”
Getting leadership involved, from the top level down to NCOs at company
level, is also important McGuire said.
“The one thing we need to do is empower the noncommissioned officers and
our young leaders, particularly at the company level, to really know
their Soldiers, but then also to inform them of the resources available
to them,” McGuire said.
And there’s a lot of resources, McGuire said, more than 400 programs
Armywide are designed to help stressed Soldiers, family members and
civilians. In fact, there may be so many it’s overwhelming, and the Army
is going to fix that.
“What they would like ideally is to have somebody with a laser pointer
and point a direction — you go this direction or you go to this office
and this is what you need,” she said. “Instead, what we have done in the
Army and even with non-profit organizations, everybody else that wants
to help — is we provide a flood light. And they are blinded by the
opportunities and resources available to them.”
The Army has queried installations about their programs, asked about
funding, effectiveness, etc.
When installations meet the response deadline for the query, a report
detailing the programs and their effectiveness will be generated,
sometime in March, to ensure effectiveness and eliminate redundancies,
McGuire said. Also standing in the way of preventing suicides in the
Army — convincing Soldiers that it’s okay to say they need help.
“Soldiers learn best by what they see,” McGuire said. “And until they
see leadership seeking help, or if they see some of their peers seek
help, and there appears not to be retribution or negative effect with
that, then we will turn that corner.”