A recent (2011) report by Margaret Harrell and Nancy Berglass (“Losing the Battle: The Challenge of Military Suicide”) looks at suicide in the U.S. military.
U.S. military active duty suicide rates, compared to general U.S. population (from Harrell and Berglass)
The U.S. military has seen an increase in suicide among its serving and former personnel, with suicide now killing more troops than enemy fire does. Junior enlisted personnel appear to be most at risk. Among U.S. veterans, it is estimated that there is one suicide death every 80 minutes and, although only 1% of Americans have seen military service, veterans account for 20% of U.S. suicides. The U.S. Army in particular has seen suicides increase markedly since 2004.
|“From Vung Tau, riding Chinooks, to the dust at Nui Dat,
I’d been in and out of choppers now for months.
But we made our tents a home, VB and pinups on the lockers,
And an Asian orange sunset through the scrub.
And can you tell me, doctor, why I still can’t get to sleep? – Redgum, I Was Only 19
And why the Channel Seven chopper chills me to my feet?
And what’s this rash that comes and goes,
Can you tell me what it means?
God help me, I was only nineteen.”
Harrell and Berglass make a number of recommendations to help address this suicide problem, including that the U.S. Army establish a “unit cohesion period” on return from deployment. Stress factors among soldiers include encountering dead bodies – and this is a stress factor which may also apply to troops on humanitarian relief missions. A 2003 book notes that “there is growing evidence that the stress of peace support operations can be as psychologically damaging as conventional warfare.” Given these stresses, addressing the problem of military suicide will require recognising post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as a “real injury.” Various helpful recommendations for dealing with PTSD have also been made in the past.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) there are over 36,000 suicides in the U.S. each year (and almost half a million cases of self-inflicted injury). Risk factors include stressful life events and feeling alone – two factors common among post-deployment military personnel who have left their unit.
Australian Defence Force (ADF) personnel appear to think about suicide more than the general community. According to one study, 3.9% of the ADF had suicidal ideation. However, comparing the 8 suicide deaths per year of ADF personnel against the 2,300 suicide deaths per year in the general Australian community shows that ADF personnel are slightly less likely to die by suicide than their civilian counterparts. This may indicate that ADF suicide prevention strategies are having some positive effects.
Arlington National Cemetery, Virginia, USA
Some of the recommendations from Harrell and Berglass also appeared in a 2010 U.S. Military Task Force report. That report highlighted in particular the need for reducing the stigma of soldiers seeking help, and for removing cultural and organisational barriers to doing so. RAND has also produced a lengthy report on preventing suicide in the U.S. military. In its July 2012 special issue on the topic, Time Magazine printed some helpful advice for wives and husbands of military personnel – see here. The Australian Defence Force has a fact sheet here.
In the end, though, suicide is everyone’s business, for “no man is an island … every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main … any man’s death diminishes me.”
U.S. Army Suicide Prevention Poster (2011)
This post is dedicated to all my friends who wear, or who have worn, a uniform, and to everyone who has been affected by suicide.