Suicides among active-duty soldiers declined slightly across the Army in 2010, halting five years of troubling increases that prompted the Defense Department to invest heavily in intervention programs.
Despite the good news, Army leaders still can’t say for sure whether their efforts are working. Twice as many National Guard soldiers took their own lives last year compared with 2009, rising from 48 to 101.
The picture was a little different in Washington state, where no enlisted National Guard soldier committed suicide last year, records show. Seven killed themselves in 2009.
“We just might be lucky, or our strategy might’ve worked,” said Col. Mike Johnson, who leads the Washington National Guard’s suicide-prevention programs.
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The number of suicides among active-duty soldiers assigned to Joint Base Lewis-McChord held steady at nine. Across the Army, 156 active-duty soldiers killed themselves in 2010, down from 162 in 2009.
Retired Sgt. Maj. Walter Morales, chief of the Army’s suicide-prevention programs, was heartened by the small drop in active-duty suicides. He’s visiting Lewis-McChord this week to film a short documentary discussing suicide with families of soldiers who have considered suicide or killed themselves.
“Perhaps we have plateaued,” he said. “From here, my intent is to drive it down.”
Morales called the decline “negligible” but said that stopping increases in active-duty suicides showed “our programs and services are having a positive impact.”
The Army has expanded mental health services since 2009, when the rate of soldiers taking their own lives surpassed the rate of civilian suicides.
It released a 350-page report last summer that analyzed Army suicides, showing that troubles at home with relationships, finances and legal problems can weigh more heavily than combat experiences on soldiers.
Finances could play a role in National Guard suicides, especially if a guardsman cannot find work after returning from a deployment. Johnson said the Washington National Guard has employment counselors throughout the state helping soldiers find work.
He said he was shocked by the number of Washington National Guard suicides in 2009 and couldn’t explain the high number. Since then, the Guard has been encouraging unit leaders to stay in touch with their soldiers.
About 2,400 Washington residents of the 81st Brigade Combat Team returned from a yearlong deployment to Iraq in August 2009.
“I don’t know if when people got back from deployment, if we just fell in and said, ‘We’ll see you in a couple months.’ Meanwhile (soldiers) struggle to get back in their new normal at home,” Johnson said.
He developed an awareness campaign to encourage guardsmen to talk about suicide and connect them with services. Some soldiers were trained to be more sensitive to signs of a colleague’s distress.
“It has to be talked about a lot, and we have to come at it with different programs,” he said. “We just have to be consistent, steady.”
Morales is behind a range of Army programs, including interactive videos that coach soldiers on how to avoid high-risk behavior and platoon-level training that seeks to take the stigma out of asking for help.
Seeking assistance is a crucial step because people he’s surveyed about the Army’s suicide-prevention services have generally been satisfied once they sought help, he said.
“We have so much, but suicide is such a personal decision that a person knowing there are resources still could decide to kill himself,” he said.
The video he’s filming at Lewis-McChord this week is the third in a series exploring suicide. The first in 2009 highlighted risk factors, such as depression. The second, produced in 2010, focused on how someone can intervene to help a friend.
They’re available on You Tube under the heading “Shoulder to Shoulder: I Will Never Quit My Life.”
This year, he’s trying to give soldiers a feel for how they encourage “resiliency” to overcome suicidal thoughts by focusing on their families or their assignments.
Morales was moved Thursday by the experience of the spouse of a soldier who killed himself last month. The wife intervened to block her husband’s attempt to kill himself at night. In the morning, she found that her husband followed through on a second attempt.
“That’s the face of resiliency,” Morales said. “This happened 35 days ago, and she’s talking about it to help others who are thinking about suicide.”