January 29, 2009, Washington, DC – The Army is committed to finding out why more soldiers committed suicide in 2008 than ever recorded, Army officials told reporters during a media roundtable today at the Pentagon.
“[Suicide] is not just an Army problem,” Army Secretary Pete Geren said. “It’s a national problem – we’re committed to doing everything we can to address [the issues] better [and] put programs in place.”
In past years, the Army, which consists of 1.1 million active and reserve troops, has been just below or on par with the national suicide rate, Geren said.
But this year, with 128 confirmed and 15 pending, an estimated 20.2 suicides occurred per 100,000 soldiers, the highest since the Army began recording the figure in 1980. The figure is higher than the national suicide rate, which is less than 20 victims per 100,000 people.
Also, the number of Army suicides increased for the fourth consecutive year, according to the Army’s 2008 Suicide Data report released today.
Army researchers admitted that at least 90 percent of pending suicide cases turns out to be actual suicides. But they explained that there’s no one cause or consistent formula for suicide prevention.
Multiple factors make up the risks and no two reasons are the same, Geren said.
A high mission tempo clearly can place strain on a military, and with wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, 12 months or longer deployment rotations and 12 months or less downtime at home, the Army certainly has been busy, Army Vice Chief Of Staff Gen. Peter W. Chiarelli said.
“We all come to the table believing stress is a factor,” Chiarelli told reporters. But he added that 2008 statistics show 30 percent of suicide victims this year were deployed, 35 percent had recently redeployed and 35 percent had no deployment experience at all.
“I think those statistics have to be looked at, and more questions have to be asked,” he said. “But there’s no doubt in my mind that stress is a factor in this trend we’re seeing.”
Chiarelli said it’s important to take a step backward to evaluate what the Army and research facilities already know about suicide and prevention and review them.
Army researchers have come together with the National Institute of Mental Health and the Department of Veterans Affairs to increase the nation’s awareness and understanding in suicide prevention, Dr. Philip S. Wang, director of the Division of Services and Intervention Research at the National Institute of Mental Health, said.
The five-year partnership is the largest research initiative on suicide ever conducted in the civilian and military sectors, Wang added.
“The National Institute of Mental Health is honored and committed to working with the Army to understand the urgency, to identify risks and prevention factors, to develop new and better intervention,” he said. “The knowledge will not only extend to soldiers and their families, but to the civilian population as well.”
Army leaders and researchers agree that reducing the number of suicide victims is a long-term goal, but in the near term, they’ve initiated an Armywide “stand-down” to take place on a day between Feb. 15 and March 15, Col. Thomas Languirand, Army deputy chief of staff for personnel, said.
The stand-down day will offer an opportunity for individual units and soldiers to address problems head on, and will include the latest training videos, materials and methods to identify symptoms and prevent suicide, Languirand explained.
The stand-down will be followed by another 120 days of a “chain-teaching” program, which is intended to be leader-led suicide prevention training, cascaded across the entire Army, he said. The stand-down period and chain-teaching program are mandated training in addition to quarterly and other suicide awareness and prevention training that may occur at the unit level already.
“The Army is concerned regarding where we are with our numbers,” he said. “Any loss of life, especially by suicide, is a tragedy. That tragedy impacts the unit, it impacts morale on that unit – and it impacts the families. It’s extremely important that we get out in front of this – nobody in the Army is satisfied as to where we are with our [past] programs.”
The Army will conduct its next suicide update in April.