Last year, 143 soldiers, 41 sailors, 41 Marines and 31 airmen took their own lives. For the first time, suicides in the Army have outpaced the rate for the same demographic group in the nation at large, with the highest number since the Pentagon began keeping track in 1980.
The Defense Department has taken notice. Both independently and in concert, the branches of the armed forces have affirmed their commitment to suicide prevention and begun trying to identify contributing factors and offer solutions. This has produced an almost bewildering array of options: A PowerPoint presentation given to Army commanders listed nearly 20 independent sources of help. Almost every branch of the armed services has launched one or more independent initiatives to promote overall mental wellness and to combat suicide - not to mention broader-ranging programs such as the Defense Centers of Excellence's "Real Warriors" campaign to lessen the stigma against seeking mental health assistance. The Army Suicide Prevention Task Force observed that commanders are "overwhelmed by the number of programs the Army already has."
The volume and variety of programs directed against suicide show a welcome commitment. But even if more programs are the solution, there needs to be a way of measuring their effectiveness.
That's why a heartening aspect of the Pentagon's anti-suicide efforts is a promise to gather and share data. This could result in strategies with applications in the struggle against suicide nationwide. It's critical that there be follow-up to identify programs that are successful and to fix or end those that are not.
Demographic factors, along with the stresses of combat, may contribute to the military's high rate of suicide. Even within the general population, young and middle-aged men are a higher-risk group. But where once military suicide rates were far below the comparable rate in the general population, increases in recent years have pushed them above what would be expected. In the Army alone, the number of suicides has doubled since 2004.
What factors contributed to such an increase remain to be seen. What is clear is that the war against suicide will be a long campaign, not a single battle. The Pentagon must make this a continuing priority, even if suicides begin to decrease. If the armed forces maintain their commitment and take steps to monitor the effectiveness of programs, there is potential for success.