Army must curb suicides


POSTED: Saturday, November 21, 2009

Suicides caused by mental stress on soldiers have increased in recent years, and the Army has launched a pilot program aimed at identifying the most vulnerable. The Pentagon has taken laudable measures to address the problem of providing adequate mental care despite the shortage of behavioral health specialists in the armed services.

That shortage has come to light in the case of Maj. Nidal M. Hasan, the Army psychiatrist charged with fatally shooting 13 people at Fort Hood, Texas. Sources have suggested that the Army was reluctant to confront Hasan about his suspicious behavior, including correspondence with a Muslim extremist cleric in Yemen, partly because of the need for mental health specialists such as Hasan.

As of Monday, 140 active duty soldiers are believed to have died this year from self-inflicted wounds, including seven at Schofield Barracks, said Gen. Peter Chiarelli, the Army vice chief of staff. That Army-wide number is the same as the last year's total, which was up from 115 in 2007 and 102 in 2006.

“;We are almost certainly going to end the year higher than last year,”; Chiarelli said. “;This is horrible, and I do not want to downplay the significance of these numbers in any way.”;

More than 40 percent of this year's suicide victims had seen a behavioral health specialist, but the Army has been unable to identify any causes except to conclude that soldiers were more likely to have taken their own lives while away from their stations.

The Army has about 900 mental health providers, but Chiarelli said that is 800 short of what is needed to give adequate care to the volume of soldiers suffering from disorders such as post-traumatic stress syndrome.

Nevertheless, the Army has begun a pilot program aimed at letting soldiers and family members seek assistance. The program is modeled after a post-deployment screening at Tripler Army Medical Center of all members of a redeploying battalion involving mental health professionals face-to-face or by computer. Chiarelli said the screening resulted in double the referral rate for mental health issues because of the 20- to 30-minute evaluations. Follow-up evaluations are planned between three and six months after they come home.

Also, the National Institute of Mental Health last year began what is expected to be a five-year study involving interviews of soldiers, their families and parents to get at the root causes of suicide in the Army, National Guard and Army Reserves.

The Army clearly recognized the breadth of the problem long before the shooting rampage at Fort Hood. More efforts are needed to make up for what is likely to be a continued shortage of behavioral experts as long as the U.S. is at war on foreign soil.