USA — Army Releases Suicide Report, Prevention Recommendations

WASHINGTON, July 29, 2010 — An Army task force cre­at­ed to reduce the increas­ing rate of sol­dier sui­cides released more than 250 rec­om­men­da­tions, includ­ing estab­lish­ing health pro­mo­tion coun­cils at each instal­la­tion, expand­ing behav­ioral health screen­ings, and recruit­ing addi­tion­al behav­ioral health coun­selors.

Army Gen. Peter W. Chiarel­li, the Army’s vice chief of staff and head of the task force, explained that Army units have worked rig­or­ous­ly over the past decade to pre­pare for and serve in com­bat. But lead­ers began to over­look sig­nals and behav­iors, includ­ing mis­con­duct, which may have indi­cat­ed an increased risk of sui­cide for some sol­diers, the gen­er­al told reporters at a Pen­ta­gon news con­fer­ence today.

“You have to under­stand that we pri­or­i­tized … to fight our nation’s wars and to be ready and tac­ti­cal­ly sound to go and do the mis­sion we were giv­en by the coun­try,” he said. “[Com­man­ders] right­ly pri­or­i­tized the No. 1 thing that they were going to do is to pre­pare their sol­diers to go into harm’s way.

“Now, as we come back and we start to see [time at home between deploy­ments] increase — or at least we fore­cast it’s going to increase — it’s time for the Army to take a hard look at itself,” he con­tin­ued. “What are those things that came low­er on our pri­or­i­ty list that we need to re-insti­tute, rein­force, and start doing to get at this prob­lem?”

The health pro­mo­tion, risk reduc­tion and sui­cide pre­ven­tion report out­lines the Army’s mis­cues, iden­ti­fies indi­ca­tors of sui­cide and, more impor­tant­ly, offers more than 250 rec­om­men­da­tions to reduce the sui­cide risk.

“[The report] iden­ti­fies indi­ca­tors of high-risk behav­iors that are reflec­tive of the stress and strain on the force after almost a decade of per­sis­tent con­flict,” the gen­er­al said. “It also iden­ti­fies gaps in poli­cies [and] pro­ce­dures per­tain­ing to the sur­veil­lance and detec­tion and mit­i­ga­tion of high-risk sui­ci­dal behav­ior.”

The rate of sol­dier sui­cides has risen in each of the past five years. In fis­cal 2009, 160 sol­diers took their own lives, while there more than 1,700 attempts. Mean­while, sol­diers with­out deploy­ment expe­ri­ence or with one deploy­ment account for 79 per­cent of Army sui­cides.

New­er sol­diers are at a high­er risk, the gen­er­al said.

“The most dif­fi­cult year to be in the Army is the first year,” Chiarel­li said. “Six­ty per­cent of sui­cides occur in first-term sol­diers.”

The Army’s top pri­or­i­ty is defend­ing the nation, but it needs to give indi­vid­ual sol­dier issues more atten­tion, Chiarel­li said, cit­ing stres­sors out­side of deploy­ments, such as fam­i­ly and finan­cial issues and drug abuse. Army offi­cials now are focus­ing more efforts on build­ing resilience in sol­diers, Chiarel­li said, and there­fore, reduc­ing sui­cide calls for a change in the Army’s cul­ture.

“If young lead­ers are doing any­thing down there today, they ought to be focus­ing their spon­sor­ship pro­grams on young sol­diers com­ing into the unit — that sol­dier that just comes out of basic [train­ing] who’s try­ing to make friends, who is new to the unit,” the gen­er­al said. “These are the kinds of things and lessons that you draw from this data that we believe are going to be absolute­ly essen­tial for us get­ting a han­dle on this.”

Over the past year, the Army has launched the Com­pre­hen­sive Sol­dier Fit­ness Pro­gram and the Mas­ter Resilience Train­er Course. Both ini­tia­tives are geared to teach­ing sol­diers at the low­est lev­els to han­dle stress. The pro­grams also give sol­diers an out­let to seek help.

Also, Chiarel­li not­ed, the Army has added 10 hours of resilience train­ing in its basic train­ing cur­ricu­lum for new recruits.

Evi­dence-based train­ing, the gen­er­al said, shows that a high rate of resilience can be taught.

“Through this data,” he added, “we have focused our effort with our mas­ter resilience train­ers at basic train­ing. That’s the kind of thing that comes out of data like this, and it allows us to focus our efforts to make sure that we’re expend­ing resources where we need to expend resources, and get­ting a very valu­able resource to us, the mas­ter resilience train­er, to the place that he needs to be.

“If you have a choice,” he con­tin­ued, “it’s a great place to have him — in basic train­ing, begin­ning the process of mak­ing sol­diers more resilient before they go to their first unit.”

The Army must con­tin­ue such efforts and focus more on the health and well-being of the entire force, includ­ing fam­i­ly mem­bers, Chiarel­li said.

The task force rec­om­men­da­tions include tight­en­ing enlist­ment stan­dards, estab­lish­ing health pro­mo­tion coun­cils at each instal­la­tion, expand­ing behav­ioral health screen­ings, and recruit­ing addi­tion­al behav­ioral health coun­selors. The Army also cre­at­ed 72 addi­tion­al posi­tions for chap­lains, accord­ing to the task force’s report.

Chiarel­li also not­ed that the num­ber of recruit­ing waivers in 2009 is down almost 50 per­cent from 2007. Such waivers allow recruits with cer­tain med­ical con­di­tions and minor crim­i­nal offens­es to enlist, help­ing the Army to meet recruit­ing goals. Some of these sol­diers, Chiarel­li acknowl­edged, are con­sid­ered a high­er risk for sui­cide than oth­ers, but he not­ed that the num­ber of sol­diers sep­a­rat­ed from the Army for dis­ci­pli­nary rea­sons also is down over the past 12 years.

The gen­er­al said the report helps lead­ers under­stand how the Army has changed after a decade of war. Some of these lead­ers, he said, have known noth­ing but the cur­rent high oper­a­tions tem­po. The Army is pay­ing more atten­tion to sol­diers who joined short­ly on, or around, Sept. 11, 2001, he added.

Many of these sol­diers now are senior lead­ers respon­si­ble for the train­ing and well-being of junior troops and don’t know the mil­i­tary that exist­ed before the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, he explained.

“You need to under­stand that we’ve got pla­toon sergeants — E‑7s in the Unit­ed States Army today — who joined the Army after Sept. 11, 2001,” he said. “Their life has been con­stant­ly ‘reset, train, ready, deploy, and begin that process all over again.’ We have fam­i­lies [for whom] that’s all they’ve ever expe­ri­enced.”

The Army hopes to build on the data it has gath­ered and it will con­tin­ue to hone in the infor­ma­tion nec­es­sary to reduce the sui­cide rate, Chiarel­li said. It’s a dif­fi­cult under­tak­ing, but must be done, he added.

Army lead­ers now under­stand that the health of the force is a pri­or­i­ty, he said.

“I think our com­man­ders are under­stand­ing that now,” he said. “As we get deep­er and deep­er in this, … the real­iza­tion has come.”

The report’s rec­om­men­da­tions are not yet Army pol­i­cy. The report now must go through a staffing process, where top lead­ers will make fur­ther deter­mi­na­tions, Chiarel­li said.

U.S. Depart­ment of Defense
Office of the Assis­tant Sec­re­tary of Defense (Pub­lic Affairs)

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