Army Responds to “Near Epidemic” of Suicide

11.30.09 | 2 min read | Text by Steven Aftergood

Facing a rising number of suicides in its ranks, the U.S. Army last week published new guidance (pdf) for improving the mental health of soldiers and for preventing or responding to suicide attempts.

“The key to the prevention of suicide is positive leadership and deep concern by supervisors of military personnel and [Army] civilian employees who are at increased risk of suicide,” the new publication explained.

Factors contributing to suicide are said to include loneliness (“an emotional state in which a person experiences powerful feelings of emptiness and spiritual isolation”), worthlessness (“an emotional state in which an individual lacks any feelings of being valued by others”), hopelessness (“a strong sense of futility, due to the belief that the future holds no escape from current negative circumstances”), helplessness, and guilt (“a strong sense of shame associated with actions they believe are wrong”).

The Army directed its commanders to carry out a series of efforts to promote soldiers’ health, to reduce the stigma associated with addressing mental health issues, and to “manage at-risk soldiers, to include processing for separation as appropriate in a timely manner.”

The New York Times last week described the rise of military suicide as a “near epidemic,” and reported that 133 active-duty U.S. Army soldiers committed suicide this year through the end of October, making it likely that last year’s record of 140 will be surpassed.  (“Families of Military Suicides Seek White House Condolences” by James Dao, November 26.)

In its new publication, the Army said it is not always possible to detect or predict suicidal intent, and that eliminating suicide altogether was not a realistic objective.  “Some suicides may be expected even in units with the best leadership climate and most efficient crisis intervention and suicide prevention programs.  Therefore, it is important to redefine the goal of suicide prevention as being suicide risk reduction [which] consists of reasonable steps taken to lower the probability that an individual will engage in acts of self-destructive behavior.”  See “Health Promotion, Risk Reduction, and Suicide Prevention,” Department of the Army Pamphlet 600-24, November 24, 2009.