Suicides among active-duty soldiers dropped slightly last year to 156 confirmed deaths, from 162 in 2009, the Army vice chief of staff said Wednesday.
At the same time, suicides among National Guard soldiers increased, Gen. Peter W. Chiarelli said at a Pentagon news briefing.
“While we achieved modest success in reducing the number of suicides of these soldiers on active duty, we saw a significant increase in the number of suicides of soldiers not serving on active duty, to include a doubling in the Army National Guard,” he said.
In 2009, the number of guard and reserve soldiers who committed suicide while not serving on active duty was 80. In 2010, that number nearly doubled to 145.
“In 2010, we’ve got two obvious questions, said Maj. Gen. Ray Carpenter, acting director of the Army National Guard.
“First of all, what happened? And second, we have to be able to respond and tell people what we are doing about it,” he said.
The analysis for 2010 shows that suicide is more complicated than single-issue stress triggers such as deployments or job loss, Carpenter said. More than half of the Army National Guard suicide victims had never deployed, and only about 15 percent were without a job. More than half who committed suicide were experiencing problems in a romantic relationship, he said.
“As you look at it, part of it is a significant relationship problem, because over 50 percent of those who committed suicide had some sort of a partner problem that they were dealing with whether it was marriage, divorce, or boyfriend, girlfriend, that kind of thing,” he said.
To curb suicides, the Army must train soldiers to withstand all types of stresses, Carpenter said. “Our effort is to build resiliency in soldiers,” he said.
To help understand the factors involved with suicide, the Army has partnered with the National Institute of Mental Health on a program called Army STARRS — the Army Study to Assess Risk and Resilience in Service Members — which began in late 2008.
NIMH and the rest of the research team — including the Uniformed Services University of the Health Services, University of Michigan, Harvard University and Columbia University — hope to identify the risk and protective factors that affect a soldier’s psychological resilience, mental health, and potential for self-harm during the study, which runs through 2014. They are slated to work with more than 400,000 soldiers.
Col. Chris Philbrick, deputy director of Army Health Promotion, Risk Reduction Task Force, said in an earlier release that research and analysis of the suicide cases of 2010 continue to reinforce that there are no universal solutions to address the complexities of personal, social and behavioral health problems that lead to suicide within the Army.
Chiarelli, though, said he is hopeful that suicides will continue to drop as leaders focus more on the problem.
“The positive thing I see is that some of our programs are beginning to work, but more important than anything else, our leaders are fully engaged with this problem right now,” he said. “We’re getting at the stigma issue, we’re getting people the help that they need, and I hope you’re going to see these numbers go down significantly in the coming year.”
While the stresses of the current wars, including long and repeated deployments and post-traumatic stress, are important potential contributors, experts point out that suicidal behavior is a complex phenomenon. The study will examine a wide range of factors related to and independent of military service, including unit cohesion, exposure to combat-related trauma, personal and economic stress, family history, childhood adversity and abuse, and overall mental health.
“I really believe when we put more time between deployments ... that is going to be a huge factor in helping get at a lot of these problems,” Chiarelli said. “I really believe that [time at home] is one of the things we have to look at, and has an impact on all kinds of problems, not just suicides, but you know, all the things that fall short of suicide from relationship issues to drug and alcohol abuse, to high-risk behavior, to all those things. The more time we can get between deployments, the better off we’ll be.”
Soldiers and families in need of crisis assistance can contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. Trained consultants are available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year and can be contacted at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).