Army's record suicide rate 'horrible,' says Gen. Chiarelli

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Army officials say they appear to be getting a handle on the problem, but they also admit that suicides among soldiers this year will likely top last year's pace. AP's Sagar Meghani reports. (Nov. 17)

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By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Army Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Peter W. Chiarelli on Tuesday called the Army's record suicide rate this year "horrible" and said the problem of soldiers taking their own lives is the toughest he has faced in his 37 years in service.

As of Nov. 16, 140 soldiers on active duty and 71 soldiers not on active duty were suspected to have committed suicide. "We are almost certainly going to end the year higher than last year," which was also a record for Army suicides, Chiarelli said at a Pentagon news conference.

"This is horrible," he said. "Every single loss is devastating."

However, Chiarelli, who has made suicide prevention a priority, said that despite the high total, the monthly suicide rate has largely declined since March.

In January and February, there were about 40 suicides, or about one-third of the active-duty total this year, and since March the general trend has been down, with the exception of a couple of months, he said. He attributed that progress primarily to a campaign to increase the involvement of Army leaders at all ranks in suicide prevention efforts.

Chiarelli voiced frustration that the Army has not yet been able to identify any causal links among the suicide cases, except that soldiers are more likely to kill themselves when they are away from their stations, where help is available. "There is no simple answer," he said. "Each suicide case is as unique as the individuals themselves."

But Chiarelli said that in more than 40 percent of the cases this year, the soldier involved had seen a behavioral health specialist.

Substance abuse, which can be related to mental health problems and suicide, is on the rise in the Army, Chiarelli said, and he added that the force is short about 300 substance abuse counselors.

The Army is also short an estimated 800 behavioral health specialists, he said, describing prewar authorization levels for such specialists as outdated. "I have been pounding the system to . . . determine what we need after eight years of war," Chiarelli said.

The Army recently refined the questionnaire it uses for incoming soldiers to better screen for psychological problems and has instituted a training program to build mental resiliency within its ranks.

In addition, the Army has launched a pilot program to have soldiers returning from overseas undergo an immediate half-hour evaluation -- either face-to-face or online via Web cameras -- by mental health providers. In the one battalion that has participated in the program so far, the evaluations led to a doubling of the referral rate for mental health issues compared with soldiers who simply filled out a post-deployment assessment form, according to Brig. Gen. Richard Thomas, the Army's assistant surgeon general for force protection.

Chiarelli declined to discuss the case of Maj. Nidal M. Hasan, charged with fatally shooting 13 people at Fort Hood, Tex., this month. Asked whether he was concerned about the risk of other violent individuals in the force, Chiarelli said, "We always have to be concerned about that."


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