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06 February 2013

USA military suicides hit record high / 22 military vets commit suicide every day

The Associated Press (USA newswire)
Monday 14 January 2013

2012 Military Suicides
Hit Record High of 349

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Suicides in the U.S. military surged to a record 349 last year, far exceeding American combat deaths in Afghanistan, and some private experts are predicting the dark trend will grow worse this year.

The Pentagon has struggled to deal with the suicides, which Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and others have called an epidemic. The problem reflects severe strains on military personnel burdened with more than a decade of combat in Afghanistan and Iraq, complicated by anxiety over the prospect of being forced out of a shrinking force.

Pentagon figures obtained Monday by The Associated Press show that the 349 suicides among active-duty troops last year were up from 301 the year before and exceeded the Pentagon's own internal projection of 325. Statistics alone do not explain why troops take their own lives, and the Pentagon's military and civilian leaders have acknowledged that more needs to be done to understand the causes.

Last year's total is the highest since the Pentagon began closely tracking suicides in 2001. It exceeds the 295 Americans who died in Afghanistan last year, by the AP's count.

Some in Congress are pressing the Pentagon to do more.

"This is an epidemic that cannot be ignored," Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., said Monday. "As our newest generation of service members and veterans face unprecedented challenges, today's news shows we must be doing more to ensure they are not slipping through the cracks."

Military suicides began rising in 2006 and soared to a then-record 310 in 2009 before leveling off for two years. It came as a surprise to many that the numbers resumed an upward climb this year, given that U.S. military involvement in Iraq is over and the Obama administration is taking steps to wind down the war in Afghanistan.

"Now that we're decreasing our troops and they're coming back home, that's when they're really in the danger zone, when they're transitioning back to their families, back to their communities and really finding a sense of purpose for themselves," said Kim Ruocco, whose husband, Marine Maj. John Ruocco, killed himself between Iraq deployments in 2005. She directs a suicide prevention program for a support group, Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, or TAPS.

The Army, by far the largest of the military services, had the highest number of suicides among active-duty troops last year at 182, but the Marine Corps, whose suicide numbers had declined for two years, had the largest percentage increase -- a 50 percent jump to 48. The Marines' worst year was 2009's 52 suicides.

The Air Force recorded 59 suicides, up 16 percent from the previous year, and the Navy had 60, up 15 percent.

All of the numbers are tentative, pending the completion later this year of formal pathology reports on each case.

Suicide prevention has become a high Pentagon priority, yet the problem persists.

"If you have a perfect storm of events on the day with somebody who has high risk factors, it's very difficult to be there every moment, fill every crack, and we just have to continue to be aware of what the risk factors are," Ruocco said.

David Rudd, a military suicide researcher and dean of the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences at the University of Utah, said he sees two main categories of troops who are committing suicide at an accelerating pace: Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans suffering from depression, post-traumatic stress or substance abuse, and those who have not gone to war but face troubled personal relationships, money problems or legal woes.

He is not optimistic about a decline soon.

"Actually, we may continue to see increases," he said.

The Pentagon says that although the military suicide rate has been rising, it remains below that of the civilian population. It says the civilian suicide rate for males aged 17-60 was 25 per 100,000 in 2010, the latest year for which such statistics are available. That compares with the military's rate in 2012 of 17.5 per 100,000.

Officials say they are committed to pursuing ways of finding help for service members in trouble.

"Our most valuable resource within the department is our people. We are committed to taking care of our people, and that includes doing everything possible to prevent suicides in the military," Pentagon spokeswoman Cynthia O. Smith said Monday.

Two retired Army generals, Peter W. Chiarelli and Dennis J. Reimer, have spoken out about the urgency of reversing the trend.

"One of the things we learned during our careers," they wrote in The Washington Post last month, "is that stress, guns and alcohol constitute a dangerous mixture. In the wrong proportions, they tend to blow out the lamp of the mind and cause irrational acts."

As recently as 2005 the Army's suicide total was less than half last year's.

Joe Davis, spokesman for the Washington office of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, said war veterans have faced difficulty adjusting to the less intense environment of their home bases. Others struggle with leaving the military in search of work in a tight civilian job market.

"It's difficult to come back from a war footing to garrison life," he said, where more mundane problems intrude on troops who had been focused almost entirely on their war mission.

Each year the Pentagon performs an in-depth study of the circumstances of each suicide. The most recent year for which that analysis is available is 2011, and among the findings was that those who took their own lives tended to be white men under the age of 25, in the junior enlisted ranks, with less than a college education.

The analysis of 2011's 301 military suicides also found that the suicide rate for divorced service members was 55 percent higher than for those who were married. It determined that 60 percent of military suicides were committed with the use of firearms — and in most cases the guns were personal weapons, not military-issued.

That study also found that most service members who attempted suicide — about 65 percent — had a known history of behavior problems, whereas 45 percent of those who actually completed the act and killed themselves had such a history.

One such case was Army Spc. Christopher Nguyen, 29, who killed himself last August at an off-post residence he shared with another member of the 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg, N.C., according to his sister, Shawna Nguyen.

"He was practically begging for help and nothing was done," she said in an interview.

She said he had been diagnosed with an "adjustment disorder" -- a problem of coping with the uncertainties of returning home after three deployments in war zones. She believes the Army failed her brother by not doing more to ensure that he received the help he needed before he became suicidal.

"It's the responsibility of the military to help these men and women," she said. "They sent them over there (to war); they should be helping them when they come back."


AP Broadcast correspondent Sagar Meghani contributed to this report.

The Defense Department's toll-free military crisis number is 800-273-8255.

Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS)

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Forbes (USA business-oriented magazine)
Tuesday 5 February 2013

Suicide Rate Among Vets
and Active Duty Military Jumps
-- Now 22 A Day

by Melanie Haiken, Contributor

A veteran protests the veteran suicide rate,
which just jumped from 18 to 22 a day

Almost once an hour -- every 65 minutes to be precise -- a military veteran commits suicide, says a new investigation by the Department of Veterans Affairs. By far the most extensive study of veteran suicides ever conducted, the report, issued Friday, examined suicide data from 1999 to 2010.

The data was then compared with a previous investigation – primarily an estimation – that had been conducted over the same time period, and had found a suicide rate of 18 per day.

Many of these suicides involve older veterans; 69 percent of the suicides recorded were by veterans age 50 and older. But another way to look at this is that 31 percent of these suicides were by veterans 49 and younger. In other words,by men in the prime of life.

And then there are the shockingly common active duty suicides. Just two weeks ago, the military released data showing that suicides among those on active duty hit a record high in 2012. There were 349 suicides among active duty personnel – almost one a day. That means there are now more suicides among active duty soldiers than there are combat deaths.

I’m not a statistician, but the information released about how the data were gathered suggests that these numbers may still be considerably underestimated. Suicides often go unreported as cause of death due to the stigma. And the data collected were from just 21 states, because these are the only states in which military status is listed on the death certificate. They were then extrapolated to apply to all 50 states.

Veteran suicide is not a new issue -- the various branches of the military have been raising awareness and increasing proactive treatment programs for veteran suicide for the past couple of years. But that’s partly what makes the new reports so upsetting -- they appear to show that veteran suicides remain undeterred by current efforts.

The Department of Veterans Affairs has a new crisis line and website with multiple avenues, including text and online chat, for those contemplating suicide to reach out. The site also offers extensive information and resources for families and friends to help them spot the warning signs of depression and suicidal thinking and take action.

According to this week’s press release, the crisis line has already resulted in saving 26,000 veterans from suicide. That’s wonderful news – except that the fact that 26,000 vets are actively suicidal is deeply disturbing.

President Obama signed an executive order on August 31st authorizing the VA to hire additional staff and double the capacity of the crisis line. Let’s hope that helps.

It’s important to note that the suicide rate overall in the United States has been rising, and veterans actually make up fewer suicide cases proportionately than they did 25 years ago. While the suicide rate in the U.S. has risen 31 percent since 1999, the rate among veterans has risen 22 percent in the same period. So according to calculations offered in a New York Times report, the percentage of the nation’s suicides that involve veterans is now 21 percent, down from 25 percent in 1999.

But yikes -- whether the number is one in five or one in four, it’s still pretty shocking that veterans make up such a high proportion of suicides in this country. Veterans affairs experts explain this by saying that veterans fall into high-risk groups for suicide, which include being male, having access to guns, and living in a rural area, but those factors don’t seem to come close to accounting for such a high rate.

I covered this subject previously as part of a report about service dogs and how they are helping veterans cope with depression and mental illness. One statistic that veterans’ groups offered at the time: for every veteran [active-duty soldier/Marine?] killed by enemy combatants, 25 veterans kill themselves.

But note: that comparison was based on the prior suicide data, so today’s comparison would be even more extreme. Here’s hoping the new campaign of public awareness and new efforts to investigate veteran suicide will result in greater access to mental health services for all veterans.

Follow me on Twitter, @MelanieHaiken or subscribe to my posts on Facebook

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U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs
Office of Public and Intergovernmental Affairs

VA Issues New Report on Suicide Data
February 1, 2013

WASHINGTON -- The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) today released a comprehensive report on Veterans who die by suicide. In the past, data on Veterans who died by suicide was only available for those who had sought VA health care services. Today’s report also includes state data for Veterans who had not received health care services from VA, which will help VA strengthen its aggressive suicide prevention activities. The report indicates that the percentage of Veterans who die by suicide has decreased slightly since 1999, while the estimated total number of Veterans who have died by suicide has increased.

“The mental health and well-being of our courageous men and women who have served the Nation is the highest priority for VA, and even one suicide is one too many,” said Secretary Eric K. Shinseki. “We have more work to do and we will use this data to continue to strengthen our suicide prevention efforts and ensure all Veterans receive the care they have earned and deserve.”

In accordance with the President’s Aug. 31, 2012, Executive Order, VA has completed hiring and training of additional staff to increase the capacity of the Veterans Crisis Line by 50 percent. The Veteran Crisis Line has made approximately 26,000 rescues of actively suicidal Veterans to date. Additionally, VA has initiated a year-long public awareness campaign, “Stand By Them,” to educate families and friends on how to seek help for Veterans and Service Members in crisis. VA has launched a national public service announcement “Side by Side.”

VA is currently engaged in an aggressive hiring campaign to expand access to mental health services with 1,600 new clinical staff, 300 new administrative staff, and is in the process of hiring and training 800 peer-to-peer specialists who will work as members of mental health teams.

The report issued today is the most comprehensive study of Veteran suicide rates ever undertaken by the Department. On June 16, 2010, Secretary Shinseki engaged governors of all 50 states, requesting their support in helping to collect suicide statistics. With assistance from state partners providing real-time data, VA is better able to assess the effectiveness of its suicide prevention programs and identify specific populations that need targeted interventions.

This new information will allow VA to better identify where those Veterans at risk may be located and improve the Department’s ability to target specific suicide interventions and outreach activities in order to reach Veterans early and proactively.  The data will also help VA continue to examine the effectiveness of suicide prevention programs being implemented in specific geographic locations or care settings in order to replicate them in other areas if they have been effective.

VA has implemented comprehensive, broad ranging suicide prevention initiatives, including a toll-free Veterans Crisis Line, placement of Suicide Prevention Coordinators at all VA Medical Centers and large outpatient facilities, and improvements in case management and reporting. Immediate help is available at or by calling the Crisis Line at 1-800-273-8255 (push 1) or texting 838255.

The full report can be found on VA’s website along with a summary response from VA Under Secretary for Health, Dr. Robert A. Petzel. 

Suicide Data Report 2012 final

Veterans Health Administration Response - Suicide Data Report 2012

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