DoD Works to Further Reduce Military Suicides

By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, May 23, 2006 - Suicide rates within the military are about half those in the general military-aged population, but the Defense Department is reaching out to its members to help further reduce the incidence of suicide within the ranks, a top military doctor said.

The suicide rate for military members during 2005 was 11 per 100,000, Dr. David Tornberg, deputy assistant secretary of defense for clinical and program policy, told American Forces Press Service. That compares to about 19.5 per 100,000, the national average for Americans in the 20- to 44-year age group. And experts say this rate may actually be 40 or 50 percent higher than reported, Tornberg said.

"We have substantially fewer suicides in the services," he said. Yet in-depth investigations into every military death and extensive publicity associated with military suicides often give the American public the opposite impression, he acknowledged.

In fact, the suicide rate within the military has remained "remarkably steady" over the past decade, through peacetime and war, Tornberg said.

And while there's no indication that combat deployments increase the likelihood of suicide, Tornberg said it's clear that they add yet another stressor to the troops.

"There's a precipitating reason for every suicide. And in general, it is a response to some life event that has dire consequences to the individual at the time," Tornberg said. "During high-stress situations such as deployments, relationship, financial and other problems may worsen."

Another contributing factor may be the ready availability of weapons.

DoD has long recognized military service as a high-stress occupation, and offers a full array of programs to help servicemembers cope with that stress. "Ours is high-stress work, and we recognize that and have really robust programs in place for addressing this issue," Tornberg said. "The way we see it, one single loss of life is a problem."

The key is making mental health services more available, removing the stigma often associated with seeking care, and teaching troops to recognize when they or a fellow servicemember may need help.

Each of the services has its own suicide prevention program tailored to its force. But despite subtle differences, all the programs make mental health support and suicide prevention available to servicemembers before, during and after deployment.

Medical screenings that include mental health factors, given before and after deployments, help identify people in distress. During deployments, mental -health-support teams and chaplains provide support. Unit leaders are trained to recognize telltale signs and steer their troops to the services they need.

Servicemembers often form the first line of defense, looking out for each other. When they're concerned that a buddy's in trouble, Tornberg advises the direct approach. "If you see someone undergoing difficulties in this area, ask them if they are considering taking their life and encourage them to seek counseling and assistance," he said.

If that doesn't work, Tornberg urges people to go to their unit leaders, chaplains or mental health professionals with their concerns. "If there's a concern about suicide, we encourage them not to keep that confidential until after the fact," he said.

Much of DoD's suicide-prevention effort is directed at educating servicemembers to recognize when they need help and where to go to get it. "We strive to train our servicemembers about risk factors for suicide and the warning signs and to encourage them to seek help if they're in a stressful situation," Tornberg said.

Troops returning from deployments go through a reintegration process that includes briefings about difficulties they may encounter reentering society and communicating with their families and friends. They receive warnings about the dangers of abusing alcohol, a factor often associated with suicide.

With the wide availability of mental health services, one of DoD's big challenges is getting people to take advantage of them.

Although there's less resistance now than in the past to seeking help, "we can't ignore the fact that broadly in society there's still a stigma associated with mental health concerns and seeking help," Tornberg said. "And we are working actively through our leadership to try to break those barriers down."


Dr. David Tornberg []

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