“Every Suicide is as different and as unique as the people themselves. And, the reality is there is no one reason a person decides to commit suicide. That decision reflects a complex combination of factors and events.”–General Pete Chiarelli, Vice Chief of Staff, Army Testimony before the House Armed Services Committee, 29 July 2009.
Historically, the Army suicide rate has been significantly lower than the civilian rate (the civilian demographically adjusted rate typically is about 19.2 per 100,000), according to a Pentagon report. Suicide and accidental death rates began trending upward in 2004, and in 2008, the Army suicide rate crested above the national average and reached a record of 20.2 per 100,000.
Clearly, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and chronic re-deployments are taking a toll.
In 2009, the U.S. military had 160 active duty suicide deaths, making suicide the third leading cause of death among the Army population, with 239 suicides across the total Army (including Reserve Component), according to an Army report released in July. In addition, there were 146 active duty deaths related to high risk behavior including 74 drug overdoses. There were 1,713 known attempted suicides in the same period. “The difference between these suicide attempts and another soldier death often was measured only by the timeliness of life-saving leader/buddy and medical interventions,” the report noted.
Florida is among the 18 states with the highest soldier-suicide rates in the nation, with more than 14 per 100,000.
- The Army’s Full Report on Soldier Suicide
- Despite Army Efforts, Soldier Suicides Continue
- Why Are Military Suicides So High?
- Counting the Casualties of War
“If we include accidental death, which frequently is the result of high risk behavior (drinking and driving, drug overdose, etc.), we find that less young men and women die in combat than die by their own actions. Simply stated, we are often more dangerous to ourselves than the enemy,” the report concluded.
“Some form of high risk behavior (self-harm, illicit drug use, binge drinking, criminal activity, etc.) was a factor in most of these deaths. When we examined the circumstances behind these deaths, we discovered a direct link to increased life stressors and increased risk behavior. For some, the rigors of service, repeated deployments, injuries and separations from family resulted in a sense of isolation, hopelessness and life fatigue. For others, a permissive unit environment, promoted by an out of balance Army […] failed to hold Soldiers accountable for their actions and allowed for risk-taking behavior – sometimes with fatal consequences.”
Today, Florida State University announced the Pentagon was enlisting it in the battle against military suicides.
A $17 million federal grant has been awarded to FSU and the Denver Veterans Affairs Medical Center to establish the Military Suicide Research Consortium. The consortium is the first of its kind to integrate DOD and civilian efforts in implementing a multidisciplinary research approach to suicide prevention.
Florida State’s Robert O. Lawton Distinguished Professor Thomas Joiner, an internationally known suicide researcher, and Peter Gutierrez, a leading suicide expert and clinical/research psychologist with the VA’s Mental Illness Research, Education and Clinical Center at the Denver VA Medical Center, will lead the consortium. Each institution will receive $8.5 million in initial funding over the next three years.
The new consortium comes as the military struggles with a surging suicide rate that now exceeds the rate of suicide in the general population. More than 1,100 members of the armed forces died by suicide from 2005 to 2009 — that’s more than the total number of servicemen and women killed in Afghanistan since the war began in 2001 — and suicides are rising again this year, according to a new task force report ordered by Congress.
“These suicides have deeply affected the military leadership, and they are desperate to do something about it,” Joiner said. “For many in the military, they never knew the misery of suicide, and now they do. They are agonizing over this. They say it hurts every bit as much as losing someone in combat, maybe more.”
Here’s one suicide case study reported in the Army’s July study: A Staff Sergeant had a hard childhood. His father was in and out of jail and both parents used illegal drugs. When he joined the Army, he thought he had finally escaped his background. He was promoted through the ranks and was well respected by his leadership. He helped to emancipate his sister and was paying for her college. Following a very violent improvised explosive device (IED) attack, he started having difficulty sleeping and was waking up with nightmares. Shortly after deploying, his parents stole his identity and incurred a large debt in his name. One night, after arguing with his family, he took his life. His action took his leadership by surprise. He was viewed as one of the most resilient Soldiers in his company.
Despite the new trend of suicide in the military, very little medical research has actually been done on the subject, said Joiner, who is also the Bright-Burton Professor of Psychology and a Distinguished Research Professor of Psychology at FSU. There’s no doubt that the trauma of combat in Afghanistan and Iraq plays a role, but that doesn’t explain why some soldiers take their own lives and others who share the same experience don’t.
“Soldiers see a lot of violence, they see death, they see the people who are closest to them in the world get killed, and they themselves are often seriously injured,” Joiner said. “That’s part of it, but that’s true of all of them, so why some and not others?”
Joiner and Gutierrez are exploring that question in order to develop better assessment tools to identify those at greatest risk and testing interventions in order to save lives.
“Assessing those at risk for suicide has been the focus of extensive research in the civilian sector,” Gutierrez said. “However, very little is currently known about how relevant existing tools are when applied to the military. This consortium will allow us to determine how best to screen and assess personnel, develop effective interventions and ultimately to reduce suicides.”
The U.S. Army Medical Research and Materiel Command Military Operational Medicine Research Program (MOMRP) established the consortium to coordinate and focus research efforts across the DOD and all branches of the military. The MOMRP is a unique biomedical research program that focuses on providing biomedical solutions that protect soldiers and enhance their performance in operational and training environments.
“We want to develop a comprehensive approach to prevent suicide and improve mental health outcomes for men and women in uniform,” said Col. Carl Castro, director of the MOMRP.
Castro said the consortium aims to yield new scientific data on suicidal behavior in the military and to provide the scientific basis for policy recommendations and clinical practice guidelines.
Building an integrated digital library of suicide research will be key to the consortium’s effort to provide and disseminate information. Florida State School of Library and Information Studies Professor Greg Riccardi will head the effort to collect, analyze and organize research publications that are relevant to suicidal behavior in the military and develop a rapid response system to provide information to policymakers and others.
“Officials want to have a fast and accurate way of searching for the resources that will allow them to make informed decisions,” Riccardi said. “We will be creating a warehouse of all available research information relevant to suicidal behavior and a search system that will allow people to pose questions about specific areas of interest and to receive ranked lists of relevant information resources. The system will be continually updated as new information becomes available.”
Florida State Professor Richard Wagner, Professor Chris Schatschneider and Associate Professor Jon Maner, all of the psychology department, and statistics Professor Daniel McGee also are members of the consortium and will provide data analysis and consulting.