Sixty-two active-duty soldiers, most of them junior enlisted members, committed suicide so far this calendar year, Col. Eddie Stephens, the Army’s deputy director for human resource policy, told reporters today during a Pentagon roundtable. The armed forces medical examiner is investigating another 31 suspected cases to determine if they will be classified as suicides.
If this trend continues through 2008, the Army will exceed last year’s 115 suicides, an all-time high for the Army, he reported. This threatens to surpass the 2007 rate of 18.1 suicides per 100,000 soldiers, approaching the 19.5 per 100,000 rate for U.S. civilians in the same demographic.
“The leadership of the army recognizes this development and considers even one suicide one too many,” he said.
After ushering in a broad range of programs designed to stop soldiers from taking their own lives, the Army is turning to what officials call the No. 1 defense: junior leaders who often know soldiers better than their own families do.
The Army plans to build on the groundwork it has laid as National Suicide Prevention Week kicks off next week with the theme, “Shoulder to Shoulder, No Soldier Stands Alone,” said Brig. Gen. Rhonda Cornum, assistant surgeon general for force protection.
The theme emphasizes the benefit of soldiers helping each other deal with tough problems, including those Cornum said are most frequently linked to soldier suicides: relationship problems, legal and financial difficulties and occupational and operational issues and stresses.
Another goal is to de-stigmatize seeking behavioral health care, and to deliver the message that seeking care when it’s needed is a sign of strength, not weakness, said Lt. Col. Thomas E. Languirand, chief of the Army’s personnel command policy and programs division
“What we are trying to do with that theme is remind soldiers, battle buddies and leaders – whether they are on the battlefield or off the battlefield – that they can lean on a fellow soldier,” Languirand told American Forces Press Service. “As an Army family, we are stronger together. And we look for soldiers to take the extra effort to recognize risk factors and warning signs of a potential suicide and for them to intervene.”
Previous suicide awareness training emphasized recognizing warning signs, Cornum said. Now the Army is taking that a step forward by getting soldiers to act when they see those signs. “We have to ensure that the Army as a culture and soldiers individually know how to help someone else get through the low points,” she said.
As one way to encourage intervention, the Army is promoting the “ACE” – Ask, Care, Escort — concept, and has printed up wallet-size cards to explain it to soldiers.
Cornum explained the technique:
• “Ask about (a soldier’s) situation or problem,” she said. “Don’t just sit there and know it. Don’t ignore it.”
• “Care enough to take action.” She urged soldiers to intervene, such as taking a weapon away from a suicidal soldier.
• Escort the person to a health-care provider or chaplain or unit leader. “Don’t just make the suggestion that he seek help and then leave,” she said.
“Knowing the ACE technique when someone is suicidal is critical,” Cornum said. “It is just as critical as knowing CPR to prevent cardiac death when someone has a heart attack.”
But just as CPR alone isn’t enough to prevent heart disease, ACE alone won’t prevent suicide, Cornum said. “There are no simple problems and there are no simple solutions,” she said. “There is no program that has been shown to be truly effective at preventing suicides.”
Success will be “the sum of a number of smaller steps,” all linked to a broad behavioral health strategy, she said.
“To really and truly prevent death by suicide, we need to … build resilience, increase social competence and enhance problem-solving skills,” Cornum said. “Our goal is to develop an approach that builds lifelong resilience in our recruits, makes them successful soldiers as well as successful citizens long after they leave the Army and makes strong mental health as much of a priority as strong physical health.”
National Suicide Prevention Week kicks off Sept. 7 and continues through Sept. 13, with World Suicide Prevention Day to be observed Sept. 10. For Reserve and National Guard units, the Army plans to extend the observance through Oct. 5.