“Simply stated, it is not a single problem with a defined set of symptoms or markers,” said Army Gen. Peter W. Chiarelli, Army vice chief of staff. “There are no easy answers or solutions. We still haven’t found any statistically significant causal linkage that would allow us to effectively predict human behavior.”
As of yesterday, 140 active-duty soldiers and 71 reserve-component troops had taken their own lives this year. The Army reported 140 active-duty suicides for all of 2008, a record high since 1980, when the Army first began tracking suicide statistics.
Although 2009 likely will be another record high for suicides in the Army, Chiarelli said, a variety of actions and studies have made progress. The general noted the recently launched Comprehensive Soldier Fitness program, the Suicide Prevention Task Force and the Army’s five-year research partnership with the National Institute of Mental Health. But leadership intervention is the biggest factor in prevention, he said.
Almost one-third of the Army’s suicides this year occurred in January and February. The trend for most months since then has been significantly lower because of the Army’s initiatives to raise awareness, identify undiagnosed mental illnesses and remove the stigma of psychological issues, Chiarelli said.
“We’re making progress,” the general said. “The general trend line, with the exception of a couple of months, has been down. If you were to ask me the single reason why I think we’re starting to make progress, it’s leader involvement across the entire force.”
The reality, Chiarelli noted, is that each incident is as unique as the individual. While the Army’s initial cause for concern was in the stresses brought on by frequent deployments, he said, about one-third of suicides have been by soldiers who never deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan.
Soldier suicides increased this year at Fort Campbell, Ky.; Fort Stewart, Ga.; and Schofield Barracks, Hawaii, but were down at other frequently deployed Army posts such as Fort Hood, Texas; Fort Bragg, N.C.; and Fort Drum, N.Y., the general said.
Army officials are having difficulty pinpointing specific contributing reasons for suicide, he acknowledged, but have gained a better understanding of traumatic brain injuries and post-traumatic stress as factors, he said.
“Fortunately, we’ve come to a better understanding of some of the specific symptoms that may indicate high-risk individuals,” he said. “We continue to focus on the related areas of undiagnosed mild TBI, PTSD and mental illnesses, risky behavior and other stressors.”
The Army continues to study the individual cases and learn more about prevention methods through its civilian partnerships and internal programs. Data from the Suicide Prevention Task Force, the National Institute of Mental Health and the execution of Comprehensive Soldier Fitness “looks very promising,” Chiarelli said.
“We’re continuing to conduct a holistic program review on all programs related to health promotion, risk reduction and suicide prevention,” he said. “We’re examining our legacy programs to ensure they are coordinated, streamlined, properly resourced and appropriate for today’s soldiers, Army civilians and family members.”
Comprehensive Soldier Fitness is “the biggest step” the Army has taken to enhance mental wellness through prevention rather than treatment, he added.
“It’s an investment in the readiness of our force that gives the same emphasis to psychological, emotional and mental strength that we have previously given to physical fitness,” he said.
Army Brig. Gen. Rhonda Cornum, chief of Comprehensive Soldier Fitness, said that although the Army historically has focused primarily on physical fitness and technical proficiency of soldiers in their job-related field, psychological fitness is essential in today’s era of persistent conflict.
Through Comprehensive Soldier Fitness, she said, Army leadership and individual soldiers can assess and build on their decision-making abilities, coping skills and communication skills. Eventually, more mentally fit soldiers will be able to pass their knowledge on to less-fit soldiers, just as soldiers always have done with physical fitness, she said.
“Those things together, if you improve on them, are increasing resilience and psychological fitness,” Cornum said. “And happily, these are things that can be taught. We need to give everybody an education so that we bring everybody up to a higher level than they came.
“Just like physical fitness,” she added, “we need to bring [soldiers] up to their psychological potential. And if people are already good at those things, we then teach them how to be an example.”
Chiarelli and Army leadership have their first of what will be annual briefings from the National Institute of Mental Health in early December. For the past year, the Army has been providing the institute with information and data on its suicide cases.
The institute’s recommendations will be implemented in the Army’s current programs and initiatives, he said, adding that such briefings will be constant for at least the next five years.