“Suicide is the toughest enemy I have faced in my 37 years in the Army,” Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III, who is leading the Army’s effort to deal with the problem, said in a written statement. “That said, I do believe suicide is preventable.”
In July there were 26 active-duty suicides and 12 suicides among National Guardsmen and reservists who were not serving in uniform at the time of their deaths. The combined 38 Army suicides is twice the number of troops killed in Afghanistan this month.
The Marine Corps had eight suicides in July, the highest monthly number so far this year, according to the Associated Press.
The losses are a significant blow to senior Army officials who had been hoping that the reduced rate of combat deployments and a series of initiatives to improve mental health care would result in a drop in the suicide rate, which surpasses levels for a similar civilian demographic.
In recent years the Army has tried to lower its suicide rate by hiring hundreds of new mental health and substance abuse counselors. But it isn’t clear that the additional resources have had an effect, and there is significant disagreement among mental health experts and military officers over how best to deal with the problem.
“The military really is trying hard,” said Kim Ruocco, a mental health social worker whose Marine husband committed suicide in 2005. “But we need more money, more resources, and we need to make mental health care a higher priority. There are still too many gaps in care and too long of waits for soldiers seeking care.”
Other mental health experts expressed doubt that more mental health resources would fix the problem. “I don’t think we can throw psychiatrists, psychologists and social workers at the problem and make it that much better,” said Frank Ochberg, a clinical professor of psychiatry at Michigan State University.
To lower the suicide rate, the military needs to reduce the stigma associated with mental illness, Ochberg said. “The culture does not make it easy to get help,” he said.
Senior Army officials on Thursday highlighted the need to encourage more soldiers to seek out mental health care and seemed to play down the need for more counselors. “We want the mind-set across our force and society at large to be that behavioral health is a routine part of what we do and who we are,” Austin said.
Austin also said that the Army will continue to work to help soldiers to develop better coping mechanisms to deal with setbacks and loss.
There is significant disagreement over how to reduce the stigma associated with mental illness and encourage more soldiers to seek care.
Several psychiatrists and at least one retired general began lobbying earlier this year to change the name of post-traumatic stress disorder, a mental condition that is believed to increase the risk of suicide, to post-traumatic stress injury. Those advocating the change maintained that soldiers suffering an injury would be more likely to seek help than those branded as having a disorder.
Other advocates have pressed the military to award the Purple Heart to troops suffering from PTSD incurred in battle as part of a broader effort to reduce the stigma associated with mental illness. In 2008, the Pentagon considered changing the criteria but decided that it was too difficult to prove that people were suffering from the condition.