Behavioral Health Media Roundtable
Col. Elspeth Richie (left), the Army's top psychiatrist, and Brig. Gen. Rhonda Cornum, assistant surgeon general for force protection, talk to Pentagon reporters about the 2007 Army Suicide Event Report and steps the Army is taking to prevent Soldier suicides.

WASHINGTON (Army News Service, May 30, 2008) - Despite a new report showing that 2007 had the Army's highest suicide rate since record-keeping began in 1980, Army officials told Pentagon reporters Thursday that new prevention and mental-health efforts are helping Soldiers.

There were 115 suicides last year in the active Army, with two cases still pending, according to the 2007 Army Suicide Event Report, compiled by Army medical officials and force-protection reports. This was up from 102 suicides in 2006. To date, the Army has 38 confirmed suicides for 2008, with 12 pending.

The 2007 numbers include 93 active-duty Soldiers and 22 mobilized reserve-component Soldiers. When not mobilized, the National Guard and Army Reserve track suicide numbers differently, and lost an additional 53 Soldiers.

There were also 935 active-duty suicide attempts, which Col. Elspeth C. Richie, psychiatry consultant to the Army's surgeon general, said includes any self-inflicted injury that leads to hospitalization or evacuation. This number is less than half of the approximately 2,100 attempts reported in 2006.

Richie and Brig. Gen. Rhonda Cornum, assistant surgeon general for force protection, didn't like the upward trend of the past few years, and said the Army is making huge changes in its culture and the way it perceives mental healthcare to help Soldiers.

"Army leadership is committed to taking care of every Soldier regardless of whether they are ill, injured or have a psychological diagnosis," said Cornum. "But our responsibility really doesn't start and stop there. Just as we don't wait for Soldiers to get malaria when they deploy them, we employ the full range of prevention, mitigation and treatment strategies...We do all the things we can to prevent and reduce risk and then, if they still get the disease, we apply scientifically-tested and specific treatments to cure it, with the expectation of full recovery and return to the force.

"We need to approach the maintenance of good mental health...in the same way, by preventive education and by applying risk-mitigation strategies in order to increase resilience and hardiness in our Soldiers before they are exposed to those environments associated with a high risk for mental health issues," she said.

The majority of the Soldiers who committed suicide, Richie said, had not sought psychological intervention, so it's vital that Soldiers know it's okay to ask for help.

Part of that education is Battlemind training, which teaches Soldiers and their Families about readjustment issues and mental-health problems they could face after a deployment, danger signs and how to get help. There are also two videos to help children deal with deployment available on www.behavioralhealth.army.mil.

According to Richie, Battlemind has been particularly successful in reducing anxiety and depression. She said the fifth-annual mental health advisory team, which deployed to Iraq in the Fall, found that 12 percent of Soldiers who said they had received the training reported post-traumatic stress symptoms, versus 20 percent who had not received the training. She added that the rate of stigma attached to getting help went down on four of five markers.

The Department of Defense recently revised a question regarding mental health on national-security questionnaires, excluding noncourt-ordered, nonviolence-related marital, family and grief counseling, as well as counseling for adjustments from combat. This, Cornum said, should help alleviate concerns many Soldiers have about their security clearances or ability to work in sensitive jobs.

The Army is also working on training primary-care providers to recognize and diagnose combat-stress injuries and other mental-health problems, and has hired 180 additional behavioral-health providers in the United States, although Richie acknowledges this is not enough and the Army has requested more.

Since July 2007, more than 900,000 Soldiers have been trained under a chain-teaching program designed to educate them about post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury, and the Army has formed a General Officer Steering Committee to target root causes that may lead to suicide and change the behavior of Soldiers and leaders to recognize and intervene when they see someone with risk factors.

"One of the things that I believe is happening, looking at these reports, is that the Army is very, very busy and perhaps we haven't taken care of each other as much as we'd like to. So if somebody's stressed next to you and you're stressed yourself, you might not have the energy to reach out to them...How can we take care of each other better'" Richie said.

"A good first sergeant is one of the best screeners there is," she continued, and stressed that staying connected is vital. Forty-three percent of the Soldier suicides last year took place after a deployment, and Richie said many of these took place when Soldiers changed units and lost connectivity.

Failed relationships, she said, are the biggest risk factors for suicide, and while deployments can and do contribute to relationship problems, she cautioned against blaming higher suicide numbers on deployments alone. Twenty-six percent of the Soldiers who committed suicide had never deployed. The Army's active-duty rate of 16.8 per 100,000 is also lower than the national average of 19.5, among similar age and gender demographics.

For more information, visit www.behavioralhealth.army.mil or www.battlemind.org.

Page last updated Fri May 30th, 2008 at 13:44