West Point suicides puzzle school's leaders


POSTED: Thursday, February 12, 2009

WASHINGTON » Following four suicides at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, officials said yesterday they are emphasizing to cadets that seeking help for mental health problems will not jeopardize their military careers.

In the last seven months, two cadets, a faculty member and a staff member at the academy have taken their own lives. The suicides were the first at the school since 1999.

They are part of a larger trend as the strained military wages war in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Army had its highest rate of suicide on record in 2008 and is investigating a spike in the number in January.

Academy Chaplain Col. John Cook, who addressed the issue yesterday at a board meeting on Capitol Hill, said there does not appear to be a common denominator among the four West Point suicides - the most recent of which occurred in January. None of the four had faced a recent deployment, for example.

In addition to the suicides, two cadets recently attempted to take their own lives, he said.

“;We're doing everything we can to study these cases, understand why they happened and see what we can do to move ahead,”; Cook said.

He said the number of cadets seeking mental health help is up threefold, which leaders view as a positive sign that the stigma associated with getting assistance has been reduced.

Brig. Gen. Michael Linnington, commandant of cadets, said there is a misconception among cadets that seeking help will jeopardize their military careers, so leaders have aggressively emphasized that is not the case.

Army Secretary Pete Geren, who attended the meeting, said that is also a challenge Army-wide. He said surveys show the stigma associated with seeking help has decreased, but more than half of soldiers surveyed still believe that getting help could damage their futures.

Cook said the academy has reframed its training on suicide prevention to include it as part of its leadership development curriculum. In small-group settings, he said, future military officers discuss preventing suicide as part of being a good leader.

Also yesterday, top senators on the Veterans Affairs Committee - Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, and Richard Burr, R-N.C. - issued a statement asking Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki to convene a joint oversight committee meeting to address military suicides.