The US Army is short as many as 300 substance-abuse counselors and 800 mental health professionals as it attempts to stem the rise of soldier suicides, which is expected to break new records again this year.
As of Monday, there were 140 confirmed suicides in 2009 among the active-duty Army and another 71 from the Reserve and National Guard, said Army Gen. Pete Chiarelli, the service's vice-chief of staff. This year will probably be worse than last year, in which 140 suicides were confirmed, he said. That would represent the fifth straight year suicides increased in the Army.
"This is horrible, and I do not want to downplay the significance of this in any way," said Chiarelli, noting that the rising number of suicides is probably the "toughest challenge" he's ever had to tackle.
The Marine Corps is seeing a similar trend: Last year it confirmed 42 suicides and has counted 42 already this year.
Too few mental health experts are available to address the problem – reflecting a shortage of such experts across the country, not just in the military.
[Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, accused of killing 13 soldiers at Fort Hood, Texas, and injuring 29 others, is an Army psychiatrist, and investigators are trying to determine if the lack of mental health counselors had any bearing on his continued employment by the Army despite warning signs about his behavior. Army officials would not comment on the matter Tuesday.]
One glimmer of hope: a new system to evaluate soldiers' mental fitness. The Army is now using an online tool that helps professionals assess the mental condition of a soldier, thereby maximizing the few professionals available to conduct such evaluations, Chiarelli said Tuesday at a Pentagon briefing. The Army was able to evaluate, at a medical center in Hawaii, everyone in a battalion returning from war. Some evaluations were face-to-face; others were completed online.
Military officials, though, say clues are few as to the cause of the uptick in suicides, saying there is not yet a clear cause-and-effect relationship between suicides and deployments to a war zone. At Fort Campbell in Kentucky, for example, seven of the 18 confirmed suicides this year involved soldiers who had never deployed. Eight of the soldiers had been deployed once, two had been deployed twice, and one had been deployed four times, according to Army data.
"As I look across all the factors, from the number of deployments individual brigade combat teams have gone through, to everything else, I cannot find a causal link that links anything," Chiarelli said.
Suicide rates do tend to rise among soldiers in the Guard and Reserve who are in "geographically separated locations" and so may not have immediate access to mental health care, he said.
Suicides were highest in January and February, and Chiarelli pointed to a slight downward trend since then. The data, however, are inconclusive. In January and February, there were 21 and 19 suicides, respectively; that dropped to 13 in March and eight in April, then increased again in May to 17. October saw 16.
Chiarelli pointed to some success with new pilot programs designed to strengthen the collective health of the force and to identify individuals with problems. One program, called Comprehensive Fitness Soldier, aims to improve the "resilience training" each soldier receives. The program is led by a female officer, Brig. Gen. Rhonda Cornum, who has credibility in the field: She was sexually assaulted in Iraq while held captive during the first Gulf War. She appeared with Chiarelli at the Pentagon Tuesday.
"We are increasing resilience and psychological fitness and, happily, these are all things that can be taught, and that we need to give everybody an education so that we bring everybody up to a higher level than they came," said Cornum.
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