As of December 2012, 482 United States service members committed suicide, while 310 died in combat. Congress and the military are trying to stop the suicides through improved prevention efforts. They may be able to reach the members who are fighting multiple enemies.
The 2011 Department of Defense (DoD) Suicide Event Report identifies 301 military suicides during the calendar year. As of December 2012, the number of military suicides rose to 482 for the year. The number of combat related deaths for 2012, at 310, is 64% of those who committed suicide. While combat deaths have decreased over the past two years, suicides have increased among America’s warriors.
The reasons for the increase may not be identified immediately or at all. The 2011 DoD report provides statistical data on the deceased, but fails to clearly determine which variables are risk factors. While mental disorders are a factor, 55% did not have a known behavioral disorder prior to their deaths. Another consideration was the number of combat deployments for the decedent. The report identified that 47% of suicides were committed by members who had a combat deployment. Of that number, 8% had participated in multiple deployments.
While determining factors have yet to be identified, the DoD, the Veterans Administration (VA) and Congress are trying to prevent further suicides. The DoD and VA announced a new suicide prevention effort last September. In December, the senate passed an amendment requiring each military service to adopt common suicide prevention practices. It also encourages hiring combat veterans to serve as counselors in behavioral health programs. The goal of these efforts is to improve prevention and reach members before they decide to kill themselves.
The congressional testimony of Margaret C. Harrell, PhD, recommended instilling a sense of belongingness, usefulness, and an aversion to pain or death, as ways to prevent suicide. While it may be difficult to convince military members to have an aversion to pain or death, the other points can be quickly instituted. Unit commanders and non-commissioned officers can reinforce unit camaraderie and an esprit de corps among their subordinates. The idea of usefulness can be reinforced by having members provide training to subordinates as well as superiors.
The core of any effort must be to restore hope in place of hopelessness. This includes the spouses and families of military members. Unit ombudsmen and chaplains can help by addressing concerns or providing needed information. They can also relay family concerns about the member to the command in a productive way. While the military reshapes suicide prevention programs and improves cooperation between itself and the VA, units will still be the first line to suicide prevention.
Soldiers, sailors, marines, airmen, and their families continue to struggle with suicide. America should give them, as well as others contemplating suicide, a chance for hope and another day.