By C. Todd Lopez
WASHINGTON (Jan. 15, 2010) -- Statistics for December suicides in the Army were released today, and show as many as 10 potential suicides amongst active-duty Soldiers.
The December numbers bring total active-duty Army suicides for 2009 to a potential 160, up from 140 in 2008 -- a 14-percent increase. But for now, 46 of last year's potential suicides are still under investigation.
Increases in Soldier suicides have driven efforts in the Army to get a handle on why suicides are occurring and how they can be stopped.
During the 2010 Department of Defense/Veterans Administration Suicide Prevention Conference in Washington, D.C., Walter Morales, the Army suicide prevention program manager, said during 2009 the Army's greatest effort was in getting various service organizations to work together toward the shared goal of combating suicide.
"I think the most important thing that we have done for the entire Army is to synchronize our efforts," he said "There's a lot of people doing a lot of great things all over the place, but the mere fact that we said: let's have a group of experts at Army level to synchronize and integrate every single service policy and program out there, I think has paid great dividends."
The Army Suicide Prevention Program, headed by Morales, is part of the Army Suicide Prevention Task Force, which stood up in March 2009. Having existed only 10 months, Morales said it's still too early yet to tell if Army efforts are successful.
"As we evaluate this and continue to push those services, those programs and policies down the line, I am confident we will see the effects of the great efforts of the Army team," he said.
The biggest challenge to combating suicide, Morales said, is combating the "stigma" that keeps Soldiers from seeking the kind of professional assistance that could help them deal with the problems that lead to suicide.
"Stigma, it is a high-level issue for the secretary of the Army on down," he said. "We have to nail it. I know stigma has been with all the services for hundreds of years. We are not going to turn this on a dime, but we are turning every rock, if you will, to see how we can eliminate the stigma for our Soldiers."
For Soldiers, the stigma against seeking help for mental health issues -- help that could prevent Soldiers from choosing suicide as an option -- stems from two issues.
First, there is the perception that seeking mental health assistance, or having evidence of mental health treatment in their records could affect promotions or job opportunities. This is especially true for Soldiers with jobs requiring a security clearance, Morales said.
In the past, one particular question on security clearance application SF-86 led some to believe that having participated in mental health counseling could affect their clearance. Today, "question 21" has been changed to make it clear that having mental help assistance doesn't necessarily affect a Soldier's ability to get a clearance, Morales said.
"Information about normal grief and family counseling does not need to be provided to in the questionnaire," Morales said.
A second contributor to the stigma against seeking mental health is the perception that seeking mental health assistance is a sign of weakness.
"The Soldiers feel a lack of worthiness if they go out and say they need help," Morales said. "We need to approach that with the leadership to make sure that the culture is such that it promotes the person to come out and be open about it."
In only 10 months of work, Morales told those at the suicide prevention conference, the Army has done much to achieve its goal of reducing Soldier suicide. He said a lot of work was put into revising Army Regulations 600-63, health promotion and DA PAM 600-24, health promotion, risk reduction and suicide prevention.
Also, he said, the Army developed two videos, "Shoulder to Shoulder: No Soldier Stands Alone" which was used in the first Army stand-down/chain teaching related to suicide, and the interactive video "Beyond the Front."
The Army is also working on a new video, "Home Front," which deals with issues that affect Soldiers who are not deployed.
Also this year, the Army implemented a pilot program, the Confidential Alcohol Treatment and Education Pilot, that allows Soldiers at three locations to self-report to the Army Substance Abuse Program without commander notification. The intent is to find if more Soldiers with alcohol-related problems will seek help if they are confident that help will not affect their careers.
Morales said there's more that has to be done before the Army can reach its goal of no suicides in the service.
"Our ultimate goal is to eliminate suicide in the service, but there are steps in between -- so I will say we continue to work diligently with everybody that has a stake in providing resources to people, with the ultimate goal to eliminate suicides," he said.