MSRC News Details

Surge of military suicides is confounding experts

The nation is long past the warning stage regarding a high rate of suicides in the military.

So it is especially disturbing to see that it took two years for one of the major recommendations contained in a task force report to be implemented.

A Suicide Prevention Office has been established in the Defense Department. What took so long?

That the Defense Department needs a special office for this problem ought to be obvious given all the attention and funds devoted to suicide prevention.

This is frustrating for the families of those who have taken their lives.

Suicides are increasing, and it’s nothing new. The numbers are double a decade ago.

In fact, in early June the number of suicides for active duty personnel was greater than the number of troops dying in battle.

It’s on a pace to set a record high, The New York Times reports.

The rate for the first six months of the year was nearly one suicide per day.

Suicide is difficult in any circumstance because it involves a general lack of attention to mental illness in this society.

The military would seem especially vulnerable to suicide when you consider the three key traits of people who die by suicide.

The three traits were identified by Thomas Joiner, a professor and psychologist at Florida State University. His father committed suicide, so Joiner has devoted great energies to understanding it.

The traits:

- Burdensomeness: People perceive they are a burden to loved ones. This feeling can turn into a motive for suicide.

- Alienation: Without support, someone is more vulnerable to feeling a burden. Veterans can return home and feel estranged from family and friends. There is much discussion of military suicides that are spurred by a failed relationship or a failed civilian job. These may place the person at risk for the final and fatal trait.

- Learned fearlessness: Human beings are conditioned not to hurt themselves. The ability to inflict a fatal attack on oneself usually takes a long time to acquire.

For someone in the active military who has been around death regularly, there is a greater likelihood to follow through with a suicide attempt.

It is not an act of cowardice, Joiner says. Far from it.

Why do people commit suicide? To escape from intense psychological suffering.

MYTHS, MISUNDERSTANDINGS

Suicide has not always been so high in the military.

In fact, the rate was less than in the civilian population especially when being compared to the same age groups.

In 2001, the suicide rate in the Army was about half the civilian rate from 1990 to 2003, wrote Col. (Ret.) Elspeth Cameron Ritchie, the former psychiatry consultant to the Army Surgeon General.

The rates then climbed steadily to 19.3 suicides per 100,000 in the Army by 2008.

So what happened?

It’s unclear.

POSSIBLE CAUSES

A congressionally mandated task force surmised that repeated deployments and too little downtime were responsible. Yet a fair share of the military have committed suicide who have not served multiple deployments.

Of Army suicides, 79 percent were soldiers with just one deployment or none.

“Suicide is the toughest enemy I have faced in my 37 years in the Army,” said Gen. Lloyd Austin III, the Army’s chief of staff, in an Associated Press story.

Other possible factors:

- Major injuries: Strangely, those who have received major injuries rarely commit suicide.

- Mental illness: Military suicides appear to be more impulsive than the result of mental illness, though that has not been ruled out.

A few conclusions can be reached.

The military must use its culture of accountability to identify those at risk and get them treatment.

“Many soldiers are reluctant to admit to problems for fear that they will be sent to the shrink or ‘wizard’ (a derogatory term used mainly in the Marine Corps) and their careers will be over,” Ritchie wrote.

Major research has been under way for several years to investigate the causes and prevention of military suicide.

This research could produce great benefits to the society at large where the impact of suicide is not fully appreciated.

In many cities, there are more suicides than murders. Because suicide often takes place out of sight, its impact is often overlooked.

“For many in the military, they never knew the misery of suicide, and now they do,” Joiner said in an FSU news release. “They are agonizing over this. They say it hurts every bit as much as losing someone in combat, maybe more.”

For the survivors of those who die by their own hand, the impact is longlasting.

The military, as well as society at large, needs to counter the myths, publicize the facts and make sure that our brave military are not fatalities at home.

Original Article