12 Feb 2009

US Army suicides - record January figures "terrifying"

If reports of suicides are confirmed, more soldiers will have taken their lives in January than died in combat. The US Army has said 24 soldiers are believed to have committed suicide in January alone - six times as many as killed themselves in January 2008.

Photo: Sky last week over towards Randwick

According to Pentagon statistics, there were 16 U.S. combat deaths in Afghanistan and Iraq in January. Now regular blog readers will know my concerns about both those wars - but there is no excuse for not having proper support for those fighting. 128 soldiers killed themselves in 2008 - this is the highest number of suicides since records began in 1980. Officials calculate the deaths at a rate of roughly 20.2 per 100,000 soldiers – which is higher than the adjusted civilian rate for the first time since the Vietnam War, officials told a Pentagon news conference. See CNN report here.

Here is a comment from a Green colleague: "I remember reading that the number of US Vietnam deaths, 58,000 was well exceeded by the number of subsequent suicides. There is a large range of claims from a surely conservative 9,000 ( http://www.vhfcn.org/stat.html ), to 50,000, a 100,000 and even 200,000 (http://www.suicidewall.com/SWStats.html ). A lot of PTSD suicides may be masked as car accidents and gun accidents. The Falklands death toll (255) also appears to be exceeded by the suicides (264 by 2002) (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/1758301.stm). The people who fight against war are doing a huge favour for the people who fight in war. A shame this is lost on our present political leadership."

I remember some years ago that Russian officers requested help from their British counterparts after estimates that thousands of conscripts were taking their lives every year because of low morale, poor conditions and brutality meted out by superiors. It was also some years ago when Greens locally joined others in highlighting concerns in the British army - see here.

As Col. Kathy Platoni, chief clinical psychologist for the Army Reserve and National Guard, said in the CNN article, she sees the stigma associated with seeking treatment and the excessive use of anti-depressants as ongoing concerns for mental-health professionals who work with soldiers. Those who are seeking mental-health care often have their treatment disrupted by deployments. Deployed soldiers also have to deal with the stress of separations from families.

Stigma is indeed a real problem. As are issues of confidentiality in the military. It is high time we tackled the stigma associated with seeking any mental health treatment. It's a societal issue, but it is much more pronounced in the military. There seems to be a perception among some troops that seeking mental health support means you're weak or a coward and frankly. The military must take some blame as they dish out medals to those who charge up the hill, but don't really recognize the day-to-day heroism of soldiers who take care of themselves.

Apparently a US Defense Department study looking at combat troops returning from Iraq found that soldiers and Marines who need counseling the most are least likely to seek it. As many as 16 percent of the troops questioned admitted to symptoms of severe depression, Post Combat Stress Disorder and other problems. Of those, six out of 10 questioned felt their leaders would treat them differently and that fellow troops would lose confidence in them. As many as 65 percent said they'd "be seen as weak."

It is positive that more mental health assessments will be taking place to counter this - but there is still miles to go. Difficulty sleeping, reliving incidents in your mind, feeling emotionally detached are all kinds of reactions that are very common and really expected after combat - and indeed in many other challenging situations.

Interestingly there is a debate about calling troops who seek help 'patients' - in the long run this could help reduce the sense that problems coping with the horrors of combat are no different than bleeding from a gunshot wound. On the other hand, studies have shown that the more troops are treated as sick - rather than simply experiencing normal reactions - the more likely they are to wrestle with mental health problems over time.

Col. Thomas Burke, one of the Pentagon's top psychiatrists and the director of mental health policy for the Defense Department has said that for any program to work, troops and military leaders need to understand "mental illness is not the kind of unsolvable problem that it once was." The message he tries to ram home is that usually it's not a matter of "problem soldiers, but soldiers with problems."

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