The Military, Mental Health Services and Suicide Statistics
The Sunday, July 25th, edition of The Palm Beach Post carried a reprint of an article originally published by the McClatchey Company, the third largest newspaper syndicate in the United States. I had never heard of them before, but the story rang a bell, forcing me to go back through a file I keep of possible documentary ideas. Sure enough, starting in 2008, I had begun saving articles dealing with the increasing number of suicides among our military men and women. The statistics are frightening.
Let me start with the last report and work my way backwards. The July 25th article was headlined, "Suicides on rise for National Guard, Reserve members." The very first paragraph stated that the number of reservist suicides this year has spiked and the military cannot explain why. We are only six months into 2010 and already 65 service members have taken their own lives. The total for the first six months of 2009 was 42 deaths.
Tim Embree, a former Marine with two tours of duty in Iraq, is a legislative associate for the advocacy group, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. He is quoted in Sunday's article as saying, "Suicides among military personnel and veterans are at an epidemic rate, and it's getting worse." Yes, it is and, here, I must go back to those old articles I've been saving.
In June 2008, an Associated Press article entitled, "Gender sways VA care, study finds," reported that the Veterans Administration, despite making long strides, was still lagging when it came to providing healthcare for women veterans. When the report was written, 14% of the U.S. military were women and, of the 1.7 million troops deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, 11% (more than 190,000) were female. Now keep in mind that 5% of soldiers seeking medical care in 2008 were women and that number was expected to double by 2010.
To be fair, the bulk of the AP article dealt with medical not mental health care. However, one short sentence advised that women veterans had complained of the lack of group counseling sessions that focused on their specific needs. Group counseling -- although not specified what topics would be discussed, is it too far reaching to think suicide might have been one of them?
A followup Op/Ed piece in the PB Post on June 22, 2008, addressed a study released by the Rand Corporation, a not for profit institution that "helps improve policy and decision making through research and analysis." The study found that more than 620,000 veterans who had served in the Middle East would need long term care for mental illnesses or traumatic brain injuries.
Let me digress here for a minute. The very popular Lifetime Television series, "Army Wives," is dedicating a number of episodes this season to traumatic brain injury. The story line is compelling in that it focuses not only on how brain trauma affects someone physically and mentally but also emotionally. It would behoove the writers to pound their fingers on the keyboard to produce a few episodes about the relationship of TBIs to suicide. They have not shied away from the touchy subject in the past and they would do well to rush in and embrace it now.
Marie Cocco, the prize winning syndicated columnist of political and cultural issues, published an Op/Ed on July 8, 2008 entitled, "Veterans face homecoming maze." She wrote about Sgt. George Ball, who served two tours in Iraq and now suffers from post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Sgt. Ball told Ms. Cocco, "I couldn't remember things -- little things like where I put my keys and things like that." He did not want to go back to Iraq because he, ".....was afraid I would forget something important and get somebody killed." Sgt. Ball applied to be discharged and A YEAR LATER, he finally received an 80% disability rating. In the months prior to qualifying as disabled, George Ball lost one job after another because "Things would drop and they would scare me pretty bad. I'd keep forgetting stuff. I figured I could live with it if I just wrote stuff down." Writing things down could not block the noises that drove George Ball to duck and run for cover.
In a 2008 interview with Ms. Cocco, Rep. Bob Filner of California, Chairman of House Veterans Affairs Committee, stated, "We've got to clean this up. We know exactly what happens when we do it wrong. We treated the Vietnam vets very badly...the same thing is happening now. There are Iraq veterans already homeless, there are suicide rates. It's life and death to take it seriously." No, Rep. Filner, what it turned out to be was certain death not to take it seriously.
On July 28, 2008, the Associated Press again published an article about the military. This one's title was "22,000 call veterans suicide hot line." According to that piece, more than 22,000 veterans sought help from a special suicide hot line and through that hot line, 1221 suicides were averted. Also cited was the Rand Corp., which found that "one in five soldiers returning from the Middle East display symptoms of PTSD, which puts them at a higher risk for suicide." The AP writer quoted Portland State University researchers who found that male veterans are twice as likely to commit suicide than non-veterans.
Statistics taken from that same Associated Press release show that the veterans suicide hotline was receiving 250 calls a day. At that time, the Veterans' Administration estimated that 6,500 veterans commit suicide yearly. In December 2007, Ira Katz, the mental health director of the VA, wrote an email in which he stated that of the 18 veterans who commit suicide each day, four or five of them are under VA care, and 12,000 veterans under VA care are attempting suicide each year."
So, what improvements have been made since all these facts were reported in 2008? None, it seems. Returning to Sunday's article from the McClatchy Newspapers, despite its best efforts to step up prevention through counseling and mental health awareness programs, the Army reported suicides for June 2010 alone at 32 deaths, a figure which includes 11 Guard and Reserve members. Seven of those deaths took place while the soldiers were deployed in either Iraq or Afghanistan. That means 25 soldiers who had either returned to the States or had never been deployed took their own lives. Why?
No one knows that answer, but someone needs to find it soon.