By John J. Kruzel
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, July 30, 2009 – The most frustrating part about suicide
prevention is the uncertainty about what causes troops to take their
lives, top military leaders said here yesterday.
This near-unanimous chorus was sounded on Capitol Hill when the
second-ranking military officers of each service testified about
military mental health before the House Armed Services Committee.
"The most frustrating thing is trying to find a cause," said Gen.
Peter W. Chiarelli, the Army's vice chief of staff.
The Army last week launched a study group comprising the military,
National Institute of Mental Health, academia and other members in
hopes of better understanding the underlying causes of suicide.
The largest study of behavioral health ever undertaken by the Army
will examine behavioral health, psychological resilience, suicide
risk, suicide-related behaviors and suicide deaths across the active
and reserve components over all phases of a soldier's career, Chiarelli said.
The $50 million study will present findings quarterly, with
preliminary results due in November. Chiarelli said the findings
could be incorporated in real time into treatment programs. The Army
had a record number of suicides in 2007 with 115, and again in 2008 with 139.
"[The study group] realizes this is not business as usual. We're not
going to wait for the final results of the study," the general said,
referring to the project's five-year timeline. "We feel that this
could be huge -- huge for the Army, the Department of Defense and
quite frankly, for America."
The general predicted that an early recommendation will be to relieve
stress on the force by increasing the amount of time troops spend at
home relative to the length of time deployed. Chiarelli said
deployment stress has shown to manifest itself in high-risk behaviors
"Unfortunately, in a growing segment of the Army's population, we've
seen increased stress and anxiety manifest itself through high-risk
behaviors, including acts of violence, excess use of alcohol, drug
abuse and reckless driving," he said.
Accordingly, the military is trying to address the broader issues
underlying psychological problems that sometimes lead to suicide.
"Suicide is an extreme indicator," Chiarelli said.
Navy Adm. Patrick M. Walsh, vice chief of naval operations, said the
military's suicide prevention should place greater emphasis on troops
after they return home from deployment.
"The reality of it is, the target for [these programs] needs to be
the assimilation of those who have served back into the general
population dealing with the day to day -- whether it's families,
their kids, their education, their bills, and the relationship
stressors associated with it," Walsh said.
"Our folks, while they're deployed, generally are OK," he said. "When
they return from the cocoon of deployment, it's those first six
months that are often a vulnerable time."
Echoing this finding, Gen. James F. Amos, the assistant Marine Corps
commandant, said Marines generally are happy when deployed. "When
they return home is when they are most at risk," he said.
In the Marine Corps, those who take their lives tend to be a certain
demographic: a white male in the junior enlisted ranks, age 18 to 24,
and the most common form of suicide was a fatal gunshot wound or
hanging, which mirrors the civilian population.
But while most Marines who committed suicide -- 42 in 2008 -- had
recently experienced a failed relationship, Amos bemoaned the lack of
a more comprehensive understanding of the root causes. "We're doing
abysmal," he told the legislators.
Gen. William M. Fraser III, Air Force vice chief of staff, expressed
optimism that an increased number of airmen seeking assistance
indicates a reduction of the stigma sometimes attached to mental
health treatment. But in a quarter of the cases of Air Force suicides
since 2003, that assistance was insufficient, he said.
"That's the most frustrating, is when you provide things and still
it's just not enough. And you never really ever know 'What else could
I have done?'" he asked ruefully. "'What else could we have done to
help them to not lose hope in the face of despair and then commit
that fateful act?'"