November 01, 2011

Report Hashes Out Battle Plan Against Military Suicides

With military suicides remaining at a stubbornly high level in recent years, there has been no shortage of calls to action. But this week the Center for a New American Security, an influential military policy group in Washington, offered some specific recommendations for what the armed services, Department of Veterans Affairs and Congress could do to bring the rate down.

The report (PDF) by Dr. Margaret C. Harrell and Nancy Berglass acknowledges up top that there is some debate over whether deployment is clearly linked to suicides. The Army’s comprehensive report on suicide last year asserted that deployment may actually reduce the likelihood of suicide. And in an interview, Dr. Harrell, a fellow at the center, said that data indicates that in the Air Force, people who never deploy are more likely to kill themselves than those who do.

But the authors say recent research suggests that there may indeed be an association between deployment and suicide, including data showing that people with traumatic brain injury are 1.5 times more likely to die from suicide than those without it. And they summarize theories among some experts that the “protective qualities” of military service — including having a sense of belonging and of service — can erode after troops return from deployments and are separated from their units, sent to garrison duty or discharged into civilian life.

The authors then lay out more than a dozen recommendations they say would help reduce the suicide rate among service members and veterans. Those include:

* Delaying transfers to new units after deployment, to maintain unit cohesion and camaraderie that might bolster individuals in the months immediately after returning from war.

* Improving the post-deployment mental health screening process to ensure that troops answer questions more honestly.

* Preventing hazing of troops, which can contribute to suicide, and weed out abusive leaders.

* Reducing bureaucratic hurdles that have slowed the hiring of mental health providers by the services.

* Changing the law so that unit leaders can discuss gun-safety measures involving privately owned weapons with service members exhibiting high-risk behavior.

* Making it easier for Defense Department hospitals and clinics to collect and destroy the excess medication of troops, to prevent hoarding and overuse.

* Increasing interaction within Guard and Reserve units between deployments so members do not feel isolated or alienated.

* Reducing the number of suicide prevention programs among National Guard units so there is a more consistent approach to suicide prevention across the nation.

The authors also address the poor data-keeping associated with veteran suicide. The Department of Veterans Affairs has postulated that 18 veterans kill themselves every day, but that estimate is based on hard data from just 16 states. The department then has come up with a formula for extrapolating a national figure based on those 16 states. Yet the states with the largest veterans populations, including California, Texas, Florida, New York and Pennsylvania, are not among the 16.

They then call for more timely data (there is a three-year lag in reporting from the states) and more comprehensive collection and analysis by the federal government.

“America is losing its battle against suicide by veterans and service members,” the authors conclude. “And as more troops return from deployment, the risk will only grow.”