by Joshua M. Patton
At the beginning of June, the latest statistics concerning suicide in the military were released and the numbers were staggering. In 2011, suicide in the military and amongst veterans reached a level that was seen as an epidemic by veterans’ groups such as Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. However, the new numbers suggest that true epidemic levels had yet to be reached. The most recent Pentagon report shows that in the first 155 days of this year, 154 active-duty servicemembers killed themselves. After the numbers from 2010 and 2011 seemed to be leveling off, this staggering upswing has everyone confused and worried.
This information preceded the annual suicide prevention conference – a joint conference by the Departments of Defense and Veteran’s Affairs. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta expressed great frustration during his remarks saying, “There are no easy answers, but that is no damn reason for not finding the answer to the problem of suicide.” Often suggested as one of the greatest hurdles in dealing with mental distress and injury – including the pages of this very site by yours truly – is overcoming the stigma in the ranks associated with seeking help. However a panel of military family members, chaired by Bonnie Carroll the founder of Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, told the officials that was no longer the case. The real problem, according to them, is that service members are seeking help either from their chain of command or the VA, and are being turned away.
There are others, such as reform therapist Dr. Peter Breggin, who believe that for many the treatments are the problem. In an essay published on The Huffington Post, Dr. Breggin speculates that the rise in suicide may be the military’s dependence on anti-depressants and other drugs. Dr. Breggin wrote a book about the subject and many anti-depressants now include a warning on the internal label (you know, that paper in the box that is often thrown away sometime between the outer box and the piece of cotton in the bottle) that children and those under the age of 24 have an increased risk of suicidal tendencies when taking this medicine.
Secretary Panetta told those at the conference that he hoped the Defense Department would strive to be “a game-changing innovator,” when it comes to battling this problem in the ranks. Eric Shinseki, Director of the VA, wonders if we are even asking “the right questions,” about how to prevent suicide. No matter what the numbers indicate, the answers are always similar. Commanders and NCOs must urge those showing signs of stress to seek help. Soldiers are shown videos and sit through briefings that try to present the same information about suicide prevention in myriad ways. The inclusion of voices like Dr. Breggin and TAPS are steps in the right direction, but while the great military machine lumbers ahead slowly, it seems that the problem is able to move faster than the solutions. Perhaps unique and unorthodox initiatives, such as the newly-funded Military Treatment Courts, can help turn the troubling tide of suicide that has claimed more deaths this year than combat.
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