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Vice says mental health more than stopping suicides

By C. Todd Lopez

WASHINGTON (July 31, 2009) -- The Army must go beyond preventing Soldier suicides, and take a look at addressing other symptoms of a force struggling with eight years of persistent conflict, said the service's vice chief.

During testimony July 29, before the House Armed Services military personnel subcommittee, Vice Chief of Staff of the Army Gen. Peter W. Chiarelli told lawmakers the Army is concerned with not only suicides, but also acts of violence, increased use of alcohol, drug abuse, infidelity and reckless driving.

"We've been at war for nearly eight years," Chiarelli said. "That has undeniably put a strain on our people and our equipment. Unfortunately, in a growing segment of the Army's population, we have seen increased stress and anxiety manifest itself through high-risk behavior, including acts of violence, excessive use of alcohol, drug abuse, and reckless driving."

In the most extreme cases, however, Soldiers commit suicide. And the Army has seen an increase in Soldiers taking their own lives. In 2008, 140 Soldiers in the active-duty Army took their own lives. That puts the 2008 active-duty suicide rate at 20.2 per 100,000 -- the highest ever for the Army and, for the first time, higher than the civilian rate.

In order to better understand the rise in suicides, the Army asked the National Institute of Mental Health to study its causes in the ranks. The study commissioned by the Army will focus on behavioral health, psychological resilience, suicide risk, suicide-related behaviors, and suicide deaths across the active and reserve components.

Chiarelli told lawmakers he thinks limited time at home between deployments is one cause of stress for Soldiers and families and that increasing dwell time is a solution.

"I think the thing that would give us a leg up on this, that would help us out so much, is to increase the amount of dwell time that our Soldiers have at home," Chiarelli said. "There is no doubt in my mind that this reduced dwell time -- is causing a tremendous amount of stress on the force, on Soldiers, and on families. And I have to believe the NIMH will identify that early as one of the stressors that is affecting us."

Chiarelli also told lawmakers the Army has several initiatives to improve the psychological wellness of Soldiers.

"Secretary of the Army Pete Geren and Chief of Staff of the Army Gen. George W. Casey Jr. consciously made the decision to expand our efforts to improve the overall behavioral health and well being of the force," Chiarelli said. "Ultimately, we want to get left of this very serious problem. And to do so we must improve the resiliency of our Soldiers and their family members. In the past the Army's approach was primarily reactive. That has changed today -- it is in fact proactive."

Part of that proactive approach to Soldier well being is the Army's Comprehensive Soldier Fitness Program, Chiarelli told legislators. The program is meant to begin for Soldiers in basic training and continue throughout their career.

In written testimony to the Congress, Chiarelli wrote that the CSF program is designed to raise "mental fitness" to the same level the Army considers physical fitness.

"We recognize people come into the Army with a very diverse range of experiences, strengths and vulnerabilities in their mental as well as physical condition," he said. "Studies have shown that mental and emotional strength are just as important as physical strength to the safety and well being of our Soldiers."

Chiarelli said he believed that there is an uptick in substance abuse problems in the Army as a result of ongoing stressors on the force. The Army has responded to that with an increase in substance abuse counselors, and recently, a pilot program at one installation to allow Soldiers to self-identify for alcohol abuse without the knowledge of their command.

"We've set up special hours, after-duty hours on Saturdays and Sundays where these appointments can be made where a Soldier who self-refers can go in and get the care and counseling he needs and hopefully head off a problem before we end up in the reactive mode," Chiarelli said. By the end of August, he added, the pilot program will be expanded to three installations.

The Army is also looking at a Web-based program to deliver care to Soldiers, Chiarelli told lawmakers. A special "Web-Care" program would provide "online 'real-time' counseling via video, e-mail, live chat, or instant messaging."

The general also said part of helping Soldiers is making it permissible for them to help themselves -- that means changing the culture so Soldiers are not ashamed to seek out mental health care. Chiarelli said recent assessments in theater have shown more Soldiers are willing to seek out mental health care without the concern that it is perceived as weakness or that it will affect their careers.

"We are committed to getting the message out to Soldiers that it is okay to get help," Chiarelli said. "We are making progress."