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DoD report: Many troops who commit suicide have seen doctor

Almost half had received a mental health diagnosis

Apr. 25, 2014 - 04:34PM   |  
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Tony Neff, an Army veteran from Frederick, Md., and fellow members of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America place flags on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., on March 27 in honor of the 1,982 veterans who have committed suicide since January 1. (Mike Morones Staff)
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Linda Stanley, a retired Air Force major, straightens one of the flags on the National Mall in honor of veterans who have committed suicide since January 1. (Mike Morones Staff)

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Nearly two-thirds of active-duty troops who died by suicide in 2012 were seen by a doctor within three months before taking their own lives, and one-third told someone of their plans, according to a Defense Department report released Friday.

Forty-two percent had at least one mental health diagnosis, and one in five were prescribed a psychiatric medication sometime in the 90 days before they died, according to the 2012 DoD Suicide Event Report.

A total of 319 active-duty and mobilized National Guard and reserve troops died by suicide in 2012, along with 203 nonmobilized reserve component members. The active-duty deaths included 155 soldiers, 59 sailors, 57 airmen and 47 Marines. Details of one death were still outstanding.

The Pentagon has generated the annual Suicide Event Report since 2008 to understand the scope of the problem in the ranks and identify risk factors that could lead to prevention and mental health treatment. In recent years, officials have launched an all-out effort to improve troops’ overall mental health with programs that teach resiliency and encourage them to get mental health treatment.

“The department takes suicide prevention very seriously and considers any measure that saves a life as one worth taking,” said Lt. Gen. Michael Linnington, military deputy to the acting undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness.

The 222-page report analyzes the 319 deaths were analyzed as well as attempts by 841 other personnel. Compared to the numbers from 2011, the results are mixed: that year, the number of troops who died by suicide was slightly lower at 301, but the number who attempted it at least once was considerably higher at 915.

In general, young, white enlisted males remain at highest risk. More than 90 percent of those who completed suicide were male, 74 percent were Caucasian and 40 percent were 17 to 24 years old. Nearly 40 percent had a high school degree, and one in four had at least some college.

Unlike previous statistics that showed the majority of those who died by suicide never deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan, nearly half of those who died by suicide in 2012 had deployed to a combat theater. However, 86 percent of troops who killed themselves had no direct combat history, according to the data.

Preliminary data for 2013, also released April 25, show 261 deaths by suicide among active-duty members. Unlike previous years, the newly released figures do not include mobilized Guard and reserve members. The reserve components saw another 213 deaths among nonmobilized personnel, according to DoD officials.

An analysis conducted by Military Times in February indicated at least 296 suicides among active-duty members and mobilized reservists, which would be down 15.7 percent from the 2012 total of 351.

Military leaders remain cautious in addressing suicide, saying the problem is too unpredictable to declare any success.

“The problem we’ve got with this terrible illness that results in this kind of behavior is it can spike on you unexpectedly,” Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh told senators in April. “We are in the middle of a spike like that right now.”

The release of the preliminary 2013 numbers on Friday along with the 2012 Suicide Event Report heralds a shift in suicide reporting at the Pentagon. According to officials, DoD is standardizing reporting practices across the services, which previously had responsibility for summarizing and releasing their own statistics.

Under the new procedure, the Pentagon will calculate military suicide death rates consistent with those used by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, allowing for better comparisons across the services and against a U.S. population adjusted for demographics similar to those of the military.

“Our most valuable resource within the department is our people,” said Defense Suicide Prevention Office Director Jackie Garrick. “We are committed to taking care of our people and this more comprehensive view will give the department a greater understanding of how to prevent suicides among all our men and women in uniform.”

Under those calculations, the suicide rates per 100,000 personnel for the services, according to the 2012 DoD report, were 29.7 for the Army; 17.8 for the Navy; 15 for the Air Force; and 24.3 for the Marine Corps.

The adjusted civilian rate, according to Army and National Institutes of Mental Health calculations, is 18.8 per 100,000.

So far this year, 32 airmen have died by suicide while the Marine Corps has seen 11 deaths and the Navy, 16. The Army has not released any figures for 2014.

Those who need help or family and friends of those in a mental health crisis can connect with trained counselors via the toll-free Military Crisis Line, 800-273-8255.

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