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WASHINGTON — Suicides reported among soldiers have tapered off from extreme highs of early this year amid intense Army efforts to stem the deaths, but officials are not yet ready to say they have turned a corner on the problem.
Army leadership said Thursday they hope a newly launched mental health study will help identify what is causing the self-inflicted deaths and what programs are best for preventing them.
Separately Thursday, other researchers reported that 37 percent of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans seeking care at Veterans Affairs clinics for the first time are being diagnosed with mental health disorders.
That is higher than some other estimates of the conflicts' toll, and researchers at the San Francisco VA Medical Center said that may be because people still in the military are more reluctant to seek care.
At the Pentagon, Army Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Peter Chiarelli said suicides reported among Army soldiers in the last four and a half months totaled 51, compared to 41 in the first two months of the year alone.
"We are not pleased, but we feel better about our efforts in the last four and a half months to at least reduce the number," he said.
Among recently boosted efforts to decrease the tragic deaths, the Army held special training in February and March for unit leaders and a top-down training throughout service ranks after that.
But officials acknowledged they can't explain the suicide decrease of recent months.
"We are not here to tell you we think we've turned the corner — next month could be another tragic month," Army Secretary Pet Geren said at a news conference with Chiarelli.
"We are doing everything we know to do." he said, adding it's not clear which of a myriad of Army programs may be helping, or even if any are helping.
Geren and Chiarelli appeared with National Institute of Mental Health Director Thomas R. Insel to announce a team of four research institutions would carry out what they said would be the largest study of suicide and mental health ever undertaken.
The $50 million study is to include some 500,000 soldiers and likely some troops from the Marine Corps and will be done by researchers at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences, University of Michigan, Harvard Medical School and Columbia University.
The Army and Marines are doing most of the fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan and suicide rates have spiked in both services in recent years.
Associated Press writer Sagar Meghani and AP Medical Writer Lauran Neergaard contributed to this report.