Guard and Reserve Suicides Up


The Army released final year-end statistics on Wednesday indicating a 24% increase in Guard and Reserve deaths last year. While the Army is seeing a slight decrease in the number of active duty suicides, the 24% increase in Army reservists and National Guard deaths is a jump that Army officials are hard-pressed to explain.

According to Major General Ray Carpenter, “The analysis for 2010 shows that it’s not a deployment problem, because more than 50 percent of the people who committed suicide in the Army National Guard had never deployed. It’s not a problem of employment, because only about 15 percent of the people who committed suicide in fact were without a job.”

Carpenter goes on to say, “As you look at it, part of it is a significant relationship problem, because over 50 percent of those who committed suicide had some sort of a partner problem that they were dealing with whether it was marriage, divorce, or boyfriend, girlfriend, that kind of thing. Our effort is to build resiliency in soldiers.”

But even though developing resiliency is mentioned as a strategy, a major factor in suicide rates may very well be the amount of time between deployments. However, top-ranking Army officials can’t agree on the issue of deployment as a factor. Major General Carpenter says it is not a deployment problem, which echoes the findings of last year’s Department of Defense report. But General Peter W. Chiarelli, the vice chief of staff of the Army, who leads the service’s suicide prevention effort, disagrees. In this article from the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Chiarelli says “In spite of the evidence that deployments are unlikely to be the cause of suicides, I’m still hopeful that increasing the amount of time between deployments to two years for every year deployed would help solve this problem. “I really believe (that) is one of the things we have to look at,” he said.

As we reported previously, the Army is struggling to address the mental health needs of its service members. In 2009, Congress created the Joint Department of Defense Task Force on the Prevention of Suicide by Members of the Armed Forces. Read their report here. There are no easy answers obviously. Suicide prevention education involves a complex series of strategies that need to evolve to meet individual situations. Unfortunately, for many, it’s too late. If you or someone you know is in need of help, talk to someone. You can also follow the links below.

Here is a list of links and resources from the U.S. Army Medical Department’s Army Behavioral Health page.

And here is a link to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline specific to veterans.

Grief + Mourning Suicide

Soldier Suicides on the Rise


ContentImageIt’s unclear yet whether these tough economic times are driving up the suicide rate in America. The latest Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data on suicide among the general population is from 2006. Even if we had more current data to work with, there is a lot of extrapolation necessary to make that connection. However, I think it’s certainly a possibility, given the utter desperation of so many people out of work and out of hope.

One thing we do know is that American soldiers, either still on active duty or those returning home, are facing serious mental health issues, some of which ultimately end in suicide. CNN has featured content lately about the increasing rates of soldier suicide. One story addresses the impact that multiple wars have had on enlisted and veteran personnel. Another discusses the “high risk behavior” that contributes to the rising Army suicide rate. Despite increased efforts by the Department of Defense to address the issue in the last several years, a successful coordinated effort and outcomes are still lacking.

Last year, Congress created the Joint Department of Defense Task Force on the Prevention of Suicide by Members of the Armed Forces. The findings of their report were released yesterday and concluded, in part, that:

“The years since 2002 have placed unprecedented demands on our armed forces and military families. Military operational requirements have risen significantly, and manning levels across the services remain too low to meet the ever-increasing demand,” said the report, released Tuesday. “The cumulative effects of all these factors are contributing significantly to the increase in the incidence of suicide.”

It goes on to say that:

“The Task Force also found that occasionally leadership environments (usually at the junior supervisory and sometimes at the mid-grade level) resulted in discriminatory and humiliating treatment of Service Members who responsibly sought professional services for emotional, psychological, moral, ethical, or spiritual matters, which not only deters help seeking but also reinforces the stigma.”

The NY Times recently ran a story and video about the inner workings of the suicide prevention hotline at the Department of Veteran Affairs in Canandaguia, NY. It is a powerful piece of reportage chronicling the desperate multiple life and death moments happening every day at the call center. The piece is about the struggles of the staff answering the calls and the returning men and women for whom calling the hotline may be a last resort.

While suicide statistics are kept for active-duty service members, no reliable data exists for veterans. The NY Times article reports that “…..estimates, while not universally accepted, seem alarming. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, veterans account for about one in five of the more than 30,000 suicides committed in the United States each year.”

There are more CDC suicide statistics and prevention info here.

What can be done? What should be done about this growing problem? I don’t have the answers, but here are a few thoughts. First and foremost, active-duty and returning service members need access to consistent and fully-funded mental health services. Help needs to be readily available and not tied up in bureaucratic red tape. For vets, calling a suicide prevention hotline is a temporary BandAid, not a fully developed action plan going forward. Vets suffering from PTSD and depression need to receive the same level of help found in physical rehabilitation programs at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. There need to be discussions around erasing the stigma of asking for help. Ultimately, it’s the war(s) that are to blame for soldier suicide. Yes, some of those soldiers may enter the service with pre-existing conditions that the presence of war only exacerbates, but war can never be good for the mind, the body or the soul. Eliminating the “trigger” is one step in the right direction. Obviously, there are no simple answers or solutions.

I recently saw an article in American Libraries that got me thinking as it relates to my own work. It’s about how New York Public Library’s telephone reference line, ASK NYPL, has developed a policy in handling calls from suicidal individuals and law enforcement agencies who respond to them. You can read the full article here. It inspired me to see what, if any, policy we currently have in place at my library. The outreach work I do is usually concerned with promoting the programs, services and collections of my library and enticing various demographic groups who may not be using the library to do so. One of our priorities right now is serving as “a resource during these tough economic times.” But if outreach is “reaching out”, then it seems that this may also be a way to reach people who need help, something that we are already doing every day at the library.

If you or someone you know is suicidal, please talk to someone. The National Suicide Prevention Helpline is 1-800-273-8255. If you are an active-duty member or a veteran, dial the same number and press 1 to be connected to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline for Veterans.

Death + the Law Death Ethics Suicide

No Presidential Condolence for Soldier Suicide

A few weeks ago, various news outlets reported the story of Spc. Chancellor Keesling, an American soldier in Iraq who committed suicide. While incidents of suicide among soldiers who are currently active and those returned home is certainly newsworthy, the focus of this particular story was quite different. Although Mr. Keesling received a proper military burial, his family did not receive the standard condolence letter sent by the president, as is customary for fallen soldiers.

This didn’t sit well with the family. Was he not a hero too? Did he not serve his country honorably? Mr. Keesling’s family then found out the reality: there would be no condolence letter — it was a matter of policy. Incensed, Mr. Keesling’s father, Gregg, wrote letters to President Obama and Army Chief of Staff Gen. George W. Casey Jr. asking them to reconsider the policy. You can read the letter here.

An Op-Ed piece in Friday’s New York Times also addresses the issue, which looks at the notion that recognition of soldier suicide valorizes or venerates death.

I have mixed feelings on this issue. I can certainly see how a grieving family would want to have their son or daughter’s military service recognized and respected and how a letter from the president would help ease that pain just a bit. However, I also don’t think killing oneself is the same as dying in combat, getting killed by friendly fire or any other way while serving. It is a different kind of death — or so we are to believe — one that does not jibe with the heroic propaganda and selfless ideology of the military.

This does not mean that Mr. Keesling did not serve his country honorably or that he doesn’t deserve recognition somehow. But ultimately, it is Mr. Keesling’s family that will live with the pain of his death for the rest of their lives, and no letter is going to change that. For President Obama and other military officials, a condolence letter is just part and parcel of the war machine, or S.O.P (standard operating procedure) in military terms. Although the Administration is looking into their current policies surrounding condolence letters, suicide, for now, is not considered “honorable.”

I believe that focusing on the root causes of depression and supporting mental health efforts for military personnel is the best strategy — and will hopefully help lessen the number of suicides in the first place — and the pain for those left behind.