Soldier Suicides Are on the Rise

Monday, June 12th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) — Soldier suicides are on the rise.

In hopes of rallying his troops to confront this sensitive issue, the Army chief of staff has issued an unusually public — and deliberately blunt — call for commanders to take the offensive.

``We have a serious problem with suicides,'' Gen. Eric K. Shinseki wrote in a message published in the latest issue of Soldiers, an Army magazine. The matter is urgent, he said. ``We must take better care of our people.''

Official statistics do not indicate any general increase in suicides for the military as a whole, although the Army says its suicide rate has gone up the past two years, to one of the highest levels since the 1970s.

In the first five days of 2000, the Army had four suspected suicides, Shinseki said.

The Army is taking steps to ``fine tune'' its approach to suicide prevention, said Lt. Col. Glen Bloomstrom, the family ministry officer for the Army chief of chaplains. Shinseki's plea is part of that new push, he said in an interview.

The Army last year had 65 confirmed suicides and 12 deaths suspected to be suicides, a rate of 15.5 suicides per 100,000 soldiers. That rate climbed for the second year in a row and is the highest among the services; only twice before over the past two decades was the Army's rate higher.

The Marine Corps last year had a rate of 15 suicides per 100,000 service members, the Navy's was 11 and the Air Force was at 5.6.

The actual number of military suicides may not seem large, considering that the active-duty force now stands at 1.3 million. But suicides over the past 10 years have been the second-leading cause of death, after accidents.

During that time, about 10 times as many troops have died at their own hand as from hostile fire.

A Pentagon-sponsored study in 1997, triggered by the shocking suicide of the Navy's top officer, Adm. Mike Boorda in May 1996, said it was not clear whether life in the military carries unique risks of suicide. Indeed suicide rates in the military traditionally have been slightly lower than in the civilian population.

On the other hand, some aspects of the military culture may inhibit some who need help from seeking it, according to Dr. John F. Mazzuchi, the deputy assistant secretary of defense for clinical policy.

``The military is a macho institution,'' he said in an interview. ``There is the perception that if I let them know I'm weak they won't want me around.''

It is that stigma which the Army hopes to eliminate, following an approach taken by the Air Force in recent years.

The Air Force has put extra emphasis on encouraging people who may be prone to suicide to seek help on their own and on creating a ``buddy'' system in which co-workers who identify danger signs in a colleague refer that individual for counseling.

The Air Force alone among the services has managed to significantly lower its suicide rate, which stood at 15.2 per 100,000 service member as recently as 1996. Mazzuchi and others say it is not clear, however, what accounts for that success.

``There are two questions: Why, and can they sustain it?'' said Navy Capt. Frances Stewart of the Pentagon's health affairs office.

The Army is trying to emulate the Air Force's success, in part by attacking the stigma problem. Shinseki wants to get the word out to commanders that erasing the stigma is their responsibility.

``To be effective, you must be willing to stand before your soldiers and tell them with sincerity that it takes a strong, courageous person to admit to having emotional problems and seek help for suicidal feelings,'' the Army says in a new booklet, ``Suicide Prevention: Could I Have Done More?''

There is some evidence to support the notion that Army commanders are not in tune with the problem.

An internal Army paper last summer described in general terms the findings of ``psychological autopsies'' of five suicides — analyses of the personal and psychological conditions under which the suicides happened.

The report found that one soldier had attempted suicide several times previously; two others had talked about committing suicide, including one who had been treated at a psychiatric ward several times.

In only one the five cases — the soldier who had been treated — did their superiors suspect a problem, the analyses found.

Statistically, the typical military suicide is committed by a white male in the upper levels of the enlisted ranks. Frequently the person has suffered a recent breakup of a marriage or other close personal relationship, and often alcohol or personal financial problems are involved, Mazzuchi said.

Among the military occupations at highest risk for suicide: Army infantryman, Marine small-arms technician, Navy seamen recruit, and law enforcement specialists in all services, according to a recent analysis by Stewart.


On the Net: Army suicide policy:

Shinseki's message on suicide: