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Online program may help ID self-harm patterns

Dec. 28, 2012 - 08:39AM   |   Last Updated: Dec. 28, 2012 - 08:39AM  |  
A screenshot of the Commander's Risk Reduction Dashboard.
A screenshot of the Commander's Risk Reduction Dashboard. (Army)
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The Army is developing an online software program leaders hope will help commanding officers connect the dots between a soldier's history of high-risk behavior and any outward signs he might be considering self-harm.

The Commander's Risk Reduction Dashboard, requested by the Army G-1's office and scheduled for a February release, will pull incident reports from multiple Army databases to create a profile commanders can consult when considering the best way to intervene with a soldier who might need help.

So far this year, the Army has confirmed 113 active-duty suicides, with 64 cases still under investigation, though typically 90 percent of suspected suicides are confirmed. The numbers for 2012 are on track to pass last year's historic high of 165 confirmed active-duty suicides.

"The software will help commanders better detect, measure and track unit-level risk behaviors to engage soldiers who may be at high risk in prevention and intervention activities," said Army Communications-Electronics Command spokeswoman Andricka Thomas. "Prevention is the key, and there is no easy solution. The Army aims to mitigate suicide risks."

The concept for the dashboard came out of an Army Red Book recommendation that commanders needed some sort of program to consolidate all of their soldiers' disciplinary records in one easy-to-use platform, Les McFarling, director of the Army Substance Abuse Program, Army G-1, told Army Times.

U.S. Armed Forces Command then surveyed 11,076 commanders, who came back with 24 risk factors they said they find are most commonly associated with suicidal behavior.

The software is in development at Army CECOM's Software Engineering Center at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Md. The initial dashboard, described as an "interim" solution, with a more expanded program due in two years, will allow company and battalion-level commanders several search options:

• A search for an individual soldier's name.

• A unit search to pull up all high-risk soldiers.

• A recent transfer search, with a list of high-risk soldiers new to the unit.

The software looks for incident reports involving 14 high-risk behaviors. They include positive drug tests, crimes against persons or property, domestic disputes, vehicle or training accidents and other disciplinary issues, which the commander can narrow by searching within a specific time period.

"Every one of those behaviors has some association with other risk behaviors [for suicide]," McFarling said. "We want to provide this information to get to the left of events, to start preventing rather than reacting."

The reports come from hundreds of databases, but they are largely the same as those that feed the Army Study to Assess Risk and Resilience in Servicemembers project, McFarling said.

A screenshot of a fictional soldier profile shows a history of incidents for Pfc. James Tiberius Kirk, who comes up in a high-risk soldier unit search for reports during November 2012.

Kirk is identified as high-risk for crimes against persons because of a Nov. 1 aggravated assault case. He also has a positive drug test from March 2012, a marijuana possession report from July 2011 and a simple assault case from May 2009.

Theoretically, his commander would take his drug and violence history into account when making recommendations for Kirk to seek counseling through Army behavioral health channels.

In an Army news release, Army Center for Substance Abuse Programs risk reduction program manager Donna Clouse described a plan to develop a sophisticated algorithm, based on types of incidents and their frequency, that could predict suicidal behavior in soldiers.

"We think that once the algorithm comes out and we gather additional information about high-risk behaviors from Army Public Health Command and others involved in the Army Study to Assess Risk and Resilience in Servicemembers program, we will be able to scale the full solution to fit the needs of commanders," Clouse said.

McFarling emphasized, however, that the dashboard does not replace the interpersonal relationships between soldiers and their leadership, and that commanders will be briefed on the appropriate ways to use the information — primarily, that it is not used to pass judgment on soldiers.

"We recognize that there is an inherent risk," he said. "We recognize the importance of getting this right is that, if there's any hint of issues, we've really damaged the whole process."

What soldiers say

Army Times asked online readers if they thought a software program could help stem the upward trend of suicides in the Army. Responses ranged from indignation to sincere hope, but the criticisms were the same.

"This will turn into another admin requirement that will keep [noncommissioned officers] and officers from actually interacting with and leading their soldiers," said Dennis Halleran, who belongs to the United States Army Facebook network and lists himself as a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

"I just left from downrange and, in my company, both platoon leaders and the commander are so far removed from what's going on in their own company," said a soldier with more than 15 years' experience who spoke extensively with Army Times. He requested that he not be identified.

"All we need is to add more computer face time for them to not know their soldiers," he said.

It's a common concern among soldiers, that leaders are spending less time getting to know them and more time telling the chain of command what it wants to hear.

"I had one of my soldiers that was getting separated from his wife, he was then … labeled high-risk," the anonymous soldier said. "My platoon leader wanted all the info but was not concerned about what was happening with the soldier, only about filling out this sheet because we have to brief it at command and staff."

When soldiers responded to an Army Times request this year for suicide experiences for a special report in the Oct. 24 issue, many of them expressed frustration with a leadership environment more focused on discipline and authority than concern for soldiers.

Soldiers expressed similar concerns about the Commander's Risk Reduction Dashboard.

"[U]napproachable, and abusive leaders contribute to these suicides … being able to come forward to your platoon sergeant or another senior leader without being tormented by your squad leader would be helpful," said James W. Coffell. "I know it happens, because I was a platoon sergeant for 12 of my 22 years and I had many soldiers come to me because I was approachable and did not get my kicks out of making their situation worse."

Some worried that the information in the database could be used against a soldier, labeling him a troublemaker as soon as he entered a new unit. The CRRD compiles information from databases that commanders already have access to, although it does make the information easier to find.

McFarling explained that the dashboard will be useful for commanders to get acquainted with their new soldiers' histories as they transfer into a unit. Having all of the information upfront can help commanders understand a soldier before their first conversation, he said.

"We know from looking at the data that transition is one of the points that's most crucial for suicides," he said. "How well the soldier and the family go through transition can determine a lot about how successful they're going to be."

Other responses cited Army's promotion system as a direct contributor to the suicide rate, explaining that NCOs they view as inexperienced and unqualified create the stressful work environments that contribute to a soldier's mental health.

"Those who have the high-demand [military occupational specialties] with [physical training] and weapon scores that are above average somehow make it through," said James Whalen, whose Facebook profile lists his employer as the Army Signal Regiment.

"We promote people to sergeant in just a few years and staff sergeant right after that because that soldier has had ‘good results,' but that same soldier lacks true leadership skills because you don't develop them over night!" Whalen said. "We have lots of novice leaders at the direct leadership level, and it causes these problems."

Expanding on the idea

Although the forthcoming first iteration of the software produces reports based on statistics, representatives of the G-1's office explained that a proposed expanded version of the software would include intervention suggestions, points of contact and graphs to visually represent soldier behavior.

There are also plans to expand the high-risk behavior categories to 20 and incorporate reports from even more Army databases.

Army representatives stressed that the dashboard is not a solution to suicide but another tool to help leaders better know their soldiers.

McFarling acknowledged that the responsible use of the data will be largely in commanders' hands, but that overall, the Army has soldiers' best interests at heart.

"We've put soldiers through a lot in the last 12 years," he said. "Some of that comes out as risk or potential risk. We owe it to the soldier to do everything we possibly can, and we want the commanders to be part of the solution."

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