Officials Fear US Army Suicide Rate may Hit New High

by Rajashri on Sep 5 2008 1:30 PM

Army officials have warned that the US Army is on track to break last year's all-time record for suicides, a pace that would top the civilian suicide rate for the first time since the Vietnam war.

The officials said 93 soldiers have taken their own lives so far this year, approaching last year's 115 suicides, the most ever on record in a single year for the army.

"With four months left, we're probably going to surpass 115," said Colonel Eddie Stephens, the army's deputy director of human resources policy.

At the current pace, the army will exceed the civilian population rate of 19.5 per 100,000 in 2005, the latest data compiled by the Centers for Disease Control, the officials said. The civilian rate is adjusted to reflect the army's youthful demographics.

The officials said the last time the army's suicide rates exceeded the civilian rate was in the late 1960s into the early 1970s when the United States was at war in Vietnam.

The triggers for suicide among soldiers have tended to be marital or other relationship issues, as well as financial or legal problems, but officials acknowledged that the high rates also were a sign of an army under stress.

"Certainly the army at large having been the primary force in the global war on terrorism since 2001 is under a lot of stress," said Brigadier General Rhonda Cornum, assistant surgeon general of the army.

"The things that are stressors in the army are things that are stressors anywhere -- new children, marriages, divorces, deaths, moving," she said.

But she said that the high pace of operations and of deployments and other personnel movements meant there was "the perception and the reality sometimes that there just isn't time" to deal with these problems.

The steady rise in the army suicide rate from 12.4 per 100,000 in 2003 has come despite intensifying army efforts to increase awareness of the problem within the ranks and to reduce the stigma of seeking help for mental health problems.

Cornum said the army has added more mental health providers, suicide prevention training programs at all levels of the army, and "resilience training" for newly inducted soldiers.

But the army officials appeared at a loss over what more could be done to turn the trend around.

"There is no one in the world that has the solution to preventing suicides. There is no empirical evidence that shows that any of these things work," said Colonel Carl Castro, a director of military medicine operations.

"It's going to really require a cultural change in which our focus is on mental strength and fitness," he said.