NATO combat operations in Afghanistan are expected to draw to a close by the middle of next year and the U.S. completed its withdrawal of troops from Iraq last December. But while fewer American soldiers are in the line of fire each day, new Pentagon statistics show that an average of one military suicide occurred each day in the first six months of 2012, the fastest pace in the past ten years.
The statistics reported by The Associated Press show that military deaths from suicide outweighed combat deaths by a two-to-one ratio, a dramatic uptick since 2010 and 2011 when military suicides decreased from previous years. See the chart below:
The 154 suicides for active duty troops in the first 155 days of 2012 raises serious questions about why military suicide rates have surged in the first half of 2012. Studies conducted by the Defense Department suggest that soldiers with multiple combat tours are more likely to commit suicide and other studies have found that combat exposure, post-traumatic stress, misuse of prescription medications and personal financial problems can all contribute to military suicides.
A report released last year [PDF] by the Center for a New American Security (CNAS) found that while the military and the Veterans Authority have taken admirable steps to improve suicide prevention and mental health counseling services but serious obstacles remain. They include:
Frequent personnel transfers complicate efforts to provide consistent mental health services. Personnel transfers occuring quickly after return from deployments hampers efforts to identify mental health conditions in the post-deployment period. Commanders are not always aware when subordinates are the subject investigation, an event which is sometimes a suicide trigger. Soldiers are sometimes encouraged to provide untruthful answers in post-deployment mental health screening questionnaires. A cultural stigma against mental health care persists in the armed forces.
Last month, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta sent an internal memo to the Pentagon’s top civilian and military leaders addressing the stigma associated with seeking helping for mental distress in the military.
“We must continue to fight to eliminate the stigma from those with post-traumatic stress and other mental health issues,” Panetta wrote, adding that commanders “cannot tolerate any actions that belittle, haze, humiliate or ostracize any individual, especially those who require or are responsibly seeking professional services.”