Sunday, November 22, 2009

Military To Refocus Efforts On Suicide Prevention

The headline makes for a real bold statement; "Military suicides increase as U.S. soldiers struggle with torment of war", but is it actually true? Is the rate actually higher than the rate seen in the general population? Is the rate actually resulting from the torment of war (where only a fraction of all members of the Armed Services are currently deployed, and where a fraction of that number have actually seen combat). The easy answer (military service and combat) turns out to not exactly fit the facts.

And despite the all too apparent links to Islamic terrorism, the report tries to bring the massacre of US troops by Major Hasan as a sign of pressures on troops, even though it was Islamic fundamentalism that informs and explains his behavior.

The military has been increasing the amount of mental health treatment for its service members, and Hasan's job actually involved counseling soldiers returning from theaters of operation. It is also becoming clear that Hasan did a poor job, handling a fraction of the workload of his coworkers, and was using his position to spread his ideological beliefs.

Through it all, the military is rolling out new programs that are designed to monitor and improve the mental health of the service members:
In response to the mounting suicides, the military has launched what is perhaps the most far-reaching effort in history to understand the psychological effects of war. Officials hope the five-year study, conducted by the National Institute of Mental Health, will lead to new methods of training and more effective treatments for traumatized service members.

The uniformed services also have rolled out dozens of new initiatives, from chain-teaching programs to pamphlets, that urge troops to seek help if they need it and to monitor the mental health of their buddies in and out of combat. The message is a fundamental departure from the suck-it-up approach that has dominated military training for generations.

"We recognize we have a problem, and we are changing the way we think," said Brig. Gen. Colleen McGuire, director of the Army’s newly formed Suicide Prevention Task Force, a panel given the broad mandate of analyzing suicides, reviewing Army programs and recommending ways to stem the problem.

And yet, the Star Ledger doesn't even come close to some important statistics that might shed light on the military's efforts and actual suicide rates. Would that not require a comparison between the military suicide rate with the rate in the general population?

Here are some statistics on suicide rates in the US, and the rate nationally for individuals aged 15-24 comes in at 10 suicides per 100,000 people in 2005. Overall, the US national suicide rate is 11 per 100,000 for 2005. Suicide rates are significantly higher for men than women. The rate for 2006 is virtually unchanged from 2005 (the last year that the government has statistics for). A study found that 3.7% of the population had serious thoughts of suicide in the past year (2009).

There are approximately 2.3 million men and women in the US Armed Forces (active and reserve). If the rate was the same among service members, the number of suicides expected in a given year would be 230 to 253 (based on the either the 18-24 rate or the general population rate). Extended to the past eight years, we'd expect to see between 1,840 and 2,024.

The Star Ledger reports 2,100 service members have committed suicide, which is just above than the figure we'd expect to see if applying the general population rate.

Mind you, none of this excuses the military's obligations to insure that all of the service members get proper mental health treatment and that the problems facing service members from deployments, regardless of whether they see combat or not are far more difficult than what one would expect to see in the general population.

Access to mental health care, and seeking that care may explain some of the difference, along with problems that those in the military appear to have once they've separated from their service (suicides and other mental health problems later in life).

However, it does suggest that the problems are not as easily blamed on military service when you start digging just a bit deeper.

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