The suicide rate in the Army and Marines reached record levels last year. This should be a source of public outrage and shame.
The Senate Armed Services Committee has been looking into the problem with a series of hearings on military suicides; the latest was Tuesday. This attention, along with the preventative steps the services have taken to address mental health problems, is helpful. But, the pace of change is too slow.
Last year, 162 Army soldiers committed suicide, up from 140 in 2008 and 115 in 2007. The number of suicides in the Marine Corps rose from 33 in 2007 to 42 in 2008 and 52 in 2009. The Air Force and Navy saw a decline in suicides in recent years.
Defying the common perception that repeated deployments are especially hard on soldiers, military officials told the Senate panel that the majority of suicides — 79 percent — were among soldiers who had served one deployment or were never deployed.
At the same time, they noted that the suicide rate was higher among reserve and National Guard troops than those on active duty. One problem may be that returning reserve and National Guard members are quickly returned to civilian life without the continued support of their military comrades.
Sen. Susan Collins pointed out that mental health treatment may be especially hard to find in rural areas like Maine, putting soldiers at further risk.
“That’s an even worse problem when you’re talking about National Guard members or reserves who are going back to their home community, their regular jobs in small communities that may not have any mental health professionals at all,” she said during Tuesday’s hearing, the fourth this year on military suicides.
Toward this end, she and Sens. Claire McCaskill and Joe Lieberman have included an amendment in the 2011 Defense Authorization bill that would make it easier for service members to access licensed mental health care counselors by eliminating the requirement for a referral from a primary care physician.
A frequent refrain during the hearing was that too many soldiers don’t seek help for fear of being stigmatized if it is known they have mental health concerns. This can only be solved by the military reinforcing that mental wounds, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, are as real as bodily wounds and that they won’t go away without treatment. Ensuring that treatment is readily available is also necessary.
It also was repeated many times during the hearing that money was not the source of the problem. Instead, more effort needed to be made to ensure the right mental health professionals are available to the right people at the right time.
This is not easy, but Congress must continue to press military officials to ensure progress is being made on this front.