By David Eisler
After more than a decade of war, the United States military is fighting another enemy closer to home – suicide. Current and former service members are taking their own lives at higher rates than ever before – every 36 hours for active soldiers, and every 80 minutes for veterans.
The numbers are chilling, and the leadership knows it.
“That is an epidemic,” said Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta to the House Armed Services Committee. “Something is wrong.”
So far in 2012, more soldiers have died from suicide than from hostile fire in Afghanistan. Among active duty and reserve personnel, there have been 247 suspected suicides, 158 of which have been confirmed with 89 still under investigation. In comparison, there have been 222 combat deaths through mid-October. In July, the number of Army suicides was the highest ever recorded in a single month. The overall rate of suicides, across military services, has increased nearly every year since 2001, and shows no signs of slowing down.
In September, the Army paused daily operations for a service-wide stand-down at U.S. military bases across the world. They devoted the entire day to suicide-prevention, a subject that is already part of every unit’s annual training requirements for soldiers and leaders.
Stress and anxiety from multiple deployments are typical factors attributed to the increase in suicides. In a separate interview, Secretary Panetta said that part of it is “due to a nation that’s been at war for over a decade. You have repeated deployments and sustained combat, [and] exposure to enormous stresses and strains on our troops and on their families that produced a lot of seen and unseen wounds that contribute to the suicide risk.”
Interestingly, the two groups that have seen the largest increase in suicide risk are soldiers who have never been to a war zone, and senior non-commissioned officers with multiple deployments. Such a wide range of experience levels may indicate that the stress of combat, or the anticipation of it, affects each age group in a different way.
Upon returning from deployments overseas, soldiers are required to attend a week of “reintegration training,” designed to help them transition back into daily life after the stress of combat and separation. The transition isn’t always easy. Typically, redeploying units see an exodus of soldiers and leaders quickly transfer to new duty stations within 90 days after returning home. As a result, soldiers who experience difficulties readjusting to post-deployment life no longer have a stable support network of peers and leaders who shared the same hardships and earned their trust. New leaders may be unaware of warning signs and behavior patterns in otherwise physically healthy soldiers, and mental health records for transferring soldiers may not reflect the seriousness of a problem known only to their previous chain of command.
Mental health evaluations following deployments also lack effectiveness. Each soldier must complete mandatory health assessments both before and after deployment to combat zones, answering questions about their experiences as well as discussing their mental health face-to-face with a trained health-care provider. But a survey conducted in 2011 found that the number of soldiers who suffered from depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), or suicidal thoughts was actually two to four times higher if they answered anonymously than when they are evaluated individually. This could indicate that, despite efforts to reduce the fear amongst soldiers that seeking mental health treatment is detrimental to their career, the problem of perception and stigma still persist within the ranks.
Although much of the media focus has been on soldiers currently serving on active duty and in the reserves, the trend among veterans has been even worse. The weight of multiple deployments, combined with budget and personnel drawdowns as the wars come to an end, has sent many soldiers searching for new opportunities in the civilian world.
In a report for The American Journal of Public Health, Dr. Robert Gibbons of the University of Chicago examined the relationship between veterans’ suicide rates and the time elapsed since their military service. The results showed a positive correlation between how recently a veteran left service and their risk of suicide. In addition, the data revealed that the youngest group of veterans, between 17 and 24, had a suicide rate that was four times the national average.
“The bottom line, as it turns out, [is that] there’s a really big risk of increased suicide right when you get out of your military service,” explained Gibbons.
General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, stated in a speech at Kansas State University that he wants to “turn up the volume” on the national conversation about veterans.
“After many years of war, it’s important for veterans and the nation to talk about the role of those who have served, where they fit in society, and whether they’re regarded as heroes, victims, or average citizens,” he said.
Helping soldiers who transition out of the military will become one of the pillars of the military’s suicide prevention effort. Rather than treating it as an individual task, the Department of Defense unveiled a new transition assistance program called “Transition Goals Planning Success (GPS)” across the armed services. The Army also introduced its “Soldier for Life” program to help build and maintain relationships with soldiers and veterans over their entire lives, rather than for a brief period at the end of their military career.
The threat of suicide continues to present an urgent challenge to civilian and military leaders. As a country serious about reaching out to those who have served, this trend should be disturbing to us. But, until it becomes part of the national conversation about bridging the psychological divide that separates the military from the civilian population, it is unlikely that we will find a permanent solution.