Suicide Blame Game

Army At-Risk Population

(click on image to enlarge)

As they wear burlap and beat themselves with reeds, the services are taking yet another look at increases in suicide in the ranks.

The Army recently published its 350-page report, “Health Promotion, Risk Reduction, Suicide Prevention.” Finding the “causes” of the increase in suicides among service members has become a bit like the search for the Holy Grail—unsatisfying and elusive. Judging from the report, the Army has collated a tremendous collection of data. It says it has zeroed in on some possible suicide indicators seen in the above illustration, but little information is new. There are pages of recommendations, yet no answers.

Service scrutiny of the suicide phenomenon may spring more from public opinion and law maker pressure than a genuine problem for the Army. Are 160 suicides in an active component of more than 500,000 soldiers a service’s problem? Whatever this situation is, the traditional problem-solution model does not fit.

Researchers found 79 percent of soldiers who committed suicide in fiscal 2009 had no deployment experience, which seems to imply factors other than combat are at play. (Another shocker.) Though the source of suicides has been known, certain media outlets have tried to pin this tail on the op tempo donkey.

It has been reported the Army suicide rate of 20 per 100,000 has surpassed the civilian rate reported by the Centers for Disease Control, 19 per 100,000. Is this difference statistically significant? (If you go to the CDC Web site, you will see most information seems to end in 2006 – a world away from the Army of 2009.)

There has been anecdotal evidence of civilian increases in the rates of suicide, and the Army has included examples in its report. For instance, the Idaho Mountain Express reported that the suicide rate had “tripled in Blaine County, Idaho, during the past six months.” In March 2010, The New York Times covered Cornell University’s “suicide cluster.” Before that, in November 2009, MSNBC reported the increase in suicide deaths in Elkhart, Indiana. But are the increases statistically significant to point to a societal shift? We don’t know.

Researchers note suicide hotline calls are up. General Lifeline calls increased from 381,316 in 2007 to 501,562 in 2009, while the Veterans Hotline increased from 20,853 to 125,625 during the same period.

So, where does the Army really fall in the suicide monologues? There seems to be an unwillingness to place some responsibility on the deceased servicemember. While suicides are complex, generally people take their own lives because they are engulfed by a hopelessness few can understand. They want the all-consuming pain to stop and have found no other way.

It is difficult to identify these people. Many of the ones who want to die don’t want to be found. Despite reports like the Army’s, few can recognize those in crisis. The services have never been good at helping even those who seek assistance. This is one of the few areas all services can realistically improve.

Regardless of reports of sleepless nights, the Army is going to lose some to suicide. It loses soldiers in combat, but their deaths can be attributed to the mission and blamed on a shadowy enemy. Aren’t all lives equal?

The Army’s report is a resource. My guess is its recommended actions will do little to decrease the number of suicides. If the suicide rate decreases the factors may remain as complex and elusive as those “explaining” the increase. (How many angels can dance on the head of the pin?)

How much attention should the services give to suicide?

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