Suicides among active U.S. Army soldiers increased for the second straight
year, as 117 soldiers killed themselves in 2007, according to a report
released on May 29.
There were 934 nonfatal suicide attempts. The numbers of suicides and
attempts were the highest in recent years. In 2006, 102 soldiers took their
Of those who died by suicide in 2007, 29 killed themselves during service
in Iraq and four while in Afghanistan.
The increase comes at a time when the Army is recruiting more mental health
professionals, conducting Army-wide training programs to fight the stigma
surrounding mental health issues, and beginning to integrate screening and
treatment for posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression into primary
"I am saddened and frustrated that the number of suicides hasn't
declined," said psychiatrist Col. Elspeth Cameron Ritchie, M.C.,
director of behavioral health in the Army Surgeon General's office, in an
interview with Psychiatric News. But many of the Army's interventions
were too recent to show any effect on the 2007 figures, she said.
Similar demographic factors characterized suicidal behavior in both 2006
and 2007, according to the Army Suicide Event Report. The Army requires a
formal report on any suicidal behavior that results in a soldier's
hospitalization, evacuation, or death.
Demographically, soldiers who completed or attempted suicide were most
likely to be young, Caucasian, and in the lower enlisted ranks. About 95
percent of those completing suicide were men, while 27 percent of those
attempting suicide were women—about twice their proportion in the Army
Use of firearms, military or nonmilitary, accounted for 63 percent of
deaths, while overdoses (60 percent) and cutting (19 percent) were the prime
methods for those attempting suicide. Most attempts and completed suicides
occurred at the soldier's personal residence.
Suicide rates (19.5 per 100,000) adjusted for gender and age are roughly
comparable to civilian rates, but both protective and risk factors are
different enough that comparisons are not useful, said Ritchie.
"They are both more resilient and more vulnerable," Ritchie
noted. "Soldiers are prescreened and get all their health care free, but
also have access to lethal weapons and face the stresses of war."
A recently failed intimate or spousal relationship was again the most
common association with completed or attempted suicide, according to the
report. However, being married was slightly protective for completed suicides
but less so for attempts while in the two war zones.
About 44 percent of those who completed suicides and 55 percent of those
who attempted suicide also had a history of at least one diagnosed mental
disorder, mainly mood or anxiety disorders, or substance
Soldiers who had served at least once in Iraq or Afghanistan accounted for
61 percent of completions (n=66) and 33 percent of attempts (n=304). Only
eight soldiers who completed suicide and 64 who made attempts were reported to
have histories of multiple deployments to the two war zones. The report did
not compare suicides with a history of combat injury, said Ritchie.
Many factors commonly associated with deployment could not be associated
with the suicides assessed in this study. PTSD was diagnosed in only seven
completed cases, and direct combat experience in 26—although this latter
information was unavailable in over one-third of cases.
A recent study by Army researchers found that rates of mental health
problems six months after soldiers returned from war was higher among Reserve
or National Guard troops than among regular active-duty soldiers. However, the
2007 Army suicide report found that members of the Reserve or National Guard
were less likely to commit suicide than their regular Army peers.
The Army's Battlemind program, which prepares troops for the psychological
stresses of deployment, combat, and return home, and prepares their families
for separation, proved protective against those stresses, according to last
fall's Mental Health Advisory Report-V (Psychiatric News, April 4).
While Battlemind is not specifically an antisuicide program, the Army had no
data on whether soldiers who had taken the training (usually on a unit basis)
were less likely to commit suicide.
The Army's various interventions may eventually bear fruit in terms of
reducing suicidal behavior, but there is no panacea that will prevent suicide
in the service, said Ritchie.
"We don't know what the numbers would be without these
programs," she pointed out. "But the current high level of
operations tempo will persist, and there is no guarantee that the suicide rate
will go down."