A young enlisted man in the military is having romantic, legal, or
financial troubles and commits suicide with his firearm.
This is a common suicide scenario in all branches of the armed forces."
A suicide note left for someone often reveals the person's despair over
a spouse leaving the marriage or feeling overwhelmed at work," said Lt.
Col. Rick Campise, M.S.C., chief of the Air Force Suicide Prevention Program,
at the 2004 annual Department of Defense (DoD) Suicide Prevention Conference
in Arlington, Va.
The October conference was organized by the Suicide Prevention and Risk
Reduction Committee, which is chaired by Col. Thomas Burke, M.C., a
Burke directs the mental health policy program in the DoD Office of the
Assistant Secretary of Defense for Health Affairs. He told Psychiatric
News that the committee plans to establish a uniform DoD-wide system that
all branches can use to track suicides, suicide gestures, and attempts.
"We currently collect only data on suicides, and each service branch
collects data differently depending on the system they use, which limits our
ability to analyze trends," Burke commented.
The idea for the annual suicide-prevention conference came from Burke's
predecessor, psychiatrist Col. E. Cameron Ritchie, M.C., who organized the
2002 and 2003 conferences. She is the president-elect of the Society of
Uniformed Services Psychiatrists, an APA district branch.
"All the services were doing innovative and exciting work on suicide
prevention. I decided to bring key people in the services together with their
counterparts in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the
National Institute of Mental Health," Ritchie told Psychiatric
Suicide is the third-leading cause of death for active-duty personnel in
the Armed Forces after accidents and illnesses (see chart). Suicide accounts
for 17 percent of all deaths among the estimated 2.7 million service members
in the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, National Guard, and Reserves, according
to the DoD.
Maj. Lisa Pearse, M.C., a preventive medicine physician, directs the DoD
Medical Mortality Registry in the Office of the Armed Forces Medical Examiner.
The registry is designed to track all causes of death of active-duty service
members, which includes support personnel, according to Pearse. A limitation
of the system is that it does not track veterans, lengths of deployment, or
"Most suicides occur in young white enlisted men in their home or
barracks in the United States," said Pearse. Men make up 85 percent of
active-duty members in the armed forces and 94 percent of those who completed
suicides in 2003.
Men in general are more likely to die in a suicide attempt than are women
because men use more lethal means such as firearms. Women are more likely to
attempt though not complete suicide, according to suicide experts.
Nearly half of all suicides (47 percent) among active-duty members of the
armed forces in Fiscal 2003 were made by young men and women aged 17 through
24, Pearse said. Those aged 25 through 34 accounted for 32 percent of
suicides, those aged 35 to 44 for 16 percent, and those aged 45 and above 4
The vast majority of suicides occurred among enlisted men at the lower pay
grades, said Pearse. Suicides occurred among married men more often than among
unmarried men from Fiscal 1998 through 2002. However, unmarried men had a
slightly higher suicide rate than married men in Fiscal 2003.
"Suicides among armed forces members deployed to Iraq appear be
disproportionately among the youngest soldiers," Pearse commented. About
64 percent of suicides among those serving in Iraq between April 2003 and
September 30, 2004, occurred among 17- to 24-year-olds. This rate was nearly
triple the suicide rate for 25- to 34-year-olds, she
For comparison, in the five years ending in July 2003, 40 percent of all
suicides in the armed forces were committed by 17- to 24-year-olds.
The suicide rate for all service members reached a record high in 1995,
prompting each branch of the military to initiate suicide-prevention programs
Suicide prevention is viewed as a troop-readiness concern under military
doctrine, and suicide-prevention programs were placed under the command of
Army and Air Force chiefs of staff and the Navy's chief operations officer,
according to the DoD.
The Air Force program, overseen by Chief of Staff Gen. John Jumper, has
become a model for other service branches. The 2004 CD-ROM version of the
program has two components, one designed for the entire Air Force community
and one for the leadership. They both describe signs of distress, encourage
people to seek help, and list community resources.
A critical element in the program's success is leadership involvement. The
leadership briefing encourages commanders "to create a culture that
encourages help seeking and suicide prevention. Suicide is prevented in the
unit by addressing quality-of-life concerns on a daily basis."
Leadership involvement is one of 11 components that make up the Air Force
program. The other initiatives include incorporating suicide prevention into
military education curricula, providing more preventive mental health services
outside of clinical settings, and establishing a psychotherapist-patient
privilege for individuals at risk of suicide who are under investigation by
central command, Campise said at the conference.
The Air Force program has reduced the suicide rate from an estimated 65
deaths annually in the decade prior to 1996, when the program was implemented,
to 33 deaths annually between 1997 and 2003, according to Campise. He
emphasized that all of the program's 11 initiatives should be implemented for
Air Force suicide prevention information is posted online at<http://sp.datausa.com/index.html>.▪