Military Suicide Rate is the Highest in Two Decades
The number of suicides in the Army increased last year to startling numbers not seen since the Vietnam War. It has been reported that 115 troops committed suicide in 2007, and about a quarter of those deaths occurred in Iraq. Several factors appear to be contributing to the higher rates including, the extension of deployments and repeated tours of duty for our young service men and women. The military acknowledges that there is now a greater need for more screening, training and education programs. The military has also approved the hiring of more than 300 psychiatrists, psychologists and other mental health professionals to address the current problem.
According to Lt. Gen. Michael Rochelle, the deputy chief of staff for personnel, suicide ranks as the fourth leading manner of death for soldiers, exceeded only by hostile fire, accidents and illnesses. He added, earlier this year on the Army’s Website, “Even more startling is that during this same period, 10 to 20 times as many soldiers have thought to harm themselves or attempted suicide.”
I am very concerned about our young service men and women – both those going off to war and those returning. The recently released suicide data certainly suggests that overall our young service men and women need additional training and education to prepare for and to cope with the stresses they will face once away. The data over the past few years has also shown higher than ever rates of service men and women returning from war with Posttraumatic Stress Disorder. As a civilian psychologist, a portion of my practice is reserved for those in the military. I find working with service men and women rewarding, and I also feel it is my duty as a citizen. Ashburn Psychological and Psychiatric Services has a team of highly trained psychiatrists and psychologists ready to support military service men and women in our community. Please contact our office manager, Laura Cusumano, at: (703) 723-2999 or you can visit us at www.ashburnpsych.com
My old supervisor and friend, Dr. Barbara Romberg, is the founder of Give an Hour (www.giveanhour.org). Give an Hour is a non-profit mental health professional volunteer network program to assist service men and women and their families. I invite my local colleagues to consider joining Give an Hour in support of military service men and women and their families. I’ve attached Give and Hour’s Mission Statement below for review.
Give an Hour
Our mission is to develop national networks of volunteers capable of responding to both acute and chronic conditions that arise within our society. Our first target population is the U.S. troops and families who are being affected by the current military conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq. Give an Hour is asking mental health professionals nationwide to literally give an hour of their time each week to provide free mental health services to military personnel and their families. Research will guide the development of additional services needed by the military community, and appropriate networks will be created to respond to those needs. Individuals who receive services will be given the opportunity to give an hour back in their own community.
Our organization is currently focusing on the psychological needs of military personnel and their families because of the significant human cost of the current conflicts. Over 1.6 million troops have been deployed in Afghanistan, Iraq, and the Persian Gulf since September 11, 2001. Nearly 550,000 of these troops have been deployed more than once. According to the U.S. Department of Defense, as of January 30, 2009, a total of 4,878 American troops have died in Iraq and Afghanistan. In addition, 33,683 U.S. troops have been injured during these conflicts.
In addition to the physical injuries sustained, countless servicemen and servicewomen have experienced psychological symptoms directly related to their deployment. According to a RAND report released in April 2008, over 18 percent of troops who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan–nearly 300,000 troops–have symptoms of post-traumatic stress or major depression. At the same time, about 19 percent of service members reported that they experienced a possible traumatic brain injury. And let us not forget: millions of Americans belong to the families of these servicemen and servicewomen. Spouses, children, parents, siblings, and unmarried partners of military personnel are all being adversely affected by the stress and strain of the current military campaign.
Our military leaders are well aware of the human cost of this campaign. Indeed, they are attempting to address the psychological needs of the troops through a variety of programs within the military culture. Unfortunately, the tremendous number of people affected makes it impossible for the military to respond adequately to the mental health needs in its greater community. For example, according to the RAND study, only 43 percent of troops reported ever being evaluated by a physician for their head injuries. Moreover, returning combat veterans suffering from depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are not routinely seeking the mental health treatment they need. RAND also reports that only 53 percent of service members with PTSD or depression sought help over the past year.
A major barrier preventing military personnel from seeking appropriate treatment is the perception of stigma associated with treatment. Many fear that seeking mental health services will jeopardize their career or standing. Others are reluctant to expose their vulnerabilities to providers who are often military personnel themselves, given the military culture’s emphasis on strength, confidence, and bravery. Servicemen and servicewomen might be more inclined to seek help if they know that the services provided are completely independent of the military. By providing services that are separate from the military establishment, we offer an essential option for men and women who might otherwise fail to seek or receive appropriate services.
We are also offering services to parents, siblings, and unmarried partners who are not entitled to receive mental health benefits through the military. Although these individuals may have access to mental health services through other means, they are less likely to seek the help they need and deserve if that help is difficult to find or costly. Our goal is to provide easy access to skilled professionals for all of the people affected by the current war. The participating mental health professionals offer a wide range of services including individual, marital, and family therapy; substance abuse counseling; treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder; and counseling for individuals with traumatic brain injuries. Whether it is a young military wife who is anxious because her four-year-old has had nightmares since her husband’s deployment or a father who is struggling to cope with his son’s loss of a leg as a result of an explosion in Iraq, both will receive the assistance they need to move through their experience. The healthier the support system for the returning troops, the lower the risk of severe or prolonged dysfunction within these military families.
Give an Hour is reaching out to the military community in several ways. As a member of America Supports You, a Department of Defense program that provides opportunities for citizens to show their support for the U.S. Armed Forces, we are identifying individuals involved in post-deployment processing of returning troops. We are developing collaborative relationships with the commanding officers of returning troops so that these officers are aware of and comfortable with the services we provide. We are also working closely with a number of veterans service organizations to promote our services directly to the family members of troops. Furthermore, we are working with individuals affiliated with Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Bethesda, Md. We are also collaborating with the Veterans Administration to distribute information about our services through Vet Centers across the country.
Finally, we are promoting our services to the military community and the public through a media campaign that includes print, television, and radio coverage. In fact, our founder and president, Dr. Barbara Romberg, has been interviewed in national media outlets from the Washington Post to NPR’s Diane Rehm Show, Ladies’ Home Journal, and HD Net’s World Report.
Give an Hour recruits mental health professionals in several ways. We have been endorsed by four major mental health associations in the United States–the American Association of Pastoral Counselors, the American Psychiatric Association, the American Psychological Association, and the National Association of Social Workers. Only licensed mental health professionals are included in the network. Licenses are verified. Nonlicensed pastoral providers may be included in the network as long as they meet other criteria, including membership in professional organizations. In addition to coordinating with national organizations, we also recruit mental health professionals through professional publications and Web sites.
As of May 2008 we have a redesigned Web site, expanded to include materials to guide visitors seeking services as well as reference materials to inform mental health professionals. Only mental health professionals trained and experienced to work with trauma victims will identify themselves as available to work with soldiers who have experienced combat. We are working with experts in the trauma field to prepare materials for our Web site and to find appropriate mental health professionals for recruitment.
The Eli Lilly and Company Foundation recently awarded Give an Hour, in partnership with the American Psychiatric Foundation, a major grant that will allow us to spread our message to the leaders of the mental health community in every state.
We are recruiting volunteers from a number of organizations and institutions as well as through our Web site to assist us in the implementation of our program. Volunteers from retired military personnel to members of military families to concerned civilians throughout the country are helping Give an Hour. Volunteers are checking licenses, distributing brochures, and coordinating community partnership opportunities for those troops and family members interested in giving back an hour to their own community.
Our primary focus will always be to attend to those in need by linking them to individuals in our society best equipped to respond effectively. In addition, we will develop research and educational programs to further promote the value and importance of a new kind of volunteerism. We hope to encourage an increase in shared responsibility for those citizens who are suffering. We need only look at the outpouring of aid and support following both the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and Hurricane Katrina in August 2005 to see the potential we have to become a truly compassionate and united nation. And we need only look at the significant costs of the war in Iraq and the relief efforts for Katrina’s victims to see that federal and state governments are already strained beyond their means. We have not only the potential but the duty to help one another in times of need.
For more information, contact
Barbara V. Romberg, Ph.D.
Founder and President