American Soldiers' Suicide Rates Still Rising
> 2/1/2008 11:07:02 AM

It's an issue we've touched on before, but the central point bears repeating: an alarming number of American soldiers either serving in or returning from our current overseas conflicts are taking their own lives. Nearly everyone agrees on the proper response, but it will be slow-coming and hard-won. While the actual numbers collected by an Army mental health group are not overwhelming at a glance (121 confirmed or strongly suspected suicides in 2007), the total rose 20% from 2006, and suicide rates among service members remain considerably higher than among the general population (17.5, as opposed to 12, per 10,000 according to 2006 numbers). But those stats don't tell the whole story. The report's most significant finding may be the observation of "an increase in the number of attempted suicides and self-injuries -- some 2,100 in 2007 compared to less than 1,500 the previous year and less than 500 in 2002." The obvious point is that far too many American soldiers and other military personnel are choosing to hurt themselves, and greater funding for and access to psychiatric treatment is very sorely needed despite commendable efforts on the part of our military.

The latest multi-part tragedy in this unfortunately recurring narrative involves Army 1st Lt. Elizabeth Whiteside; she suffered a breakdown in an Iraqi riot zone in January 2007 and, in what appeared to be a moment of unreasoned psychosis, attempted to take her own life. After residing in a critical care facility at Walter Reed Medical Center for more than a year, she made another suicide attempt, overdosing on antidepressants and other medications. Perhaps the most upsetting element of Whiteside's story: she was charged with several felonies after her first attempt, one superior officer claiming that she shot herself to avoid duty and that her severely compromised state of mental health was nothing but "an excuse." Beyond her superior's histrionic response, the very concept of a criminal charge for "attempted suicide" is ridiculous. Whiteside had also, perhaps not coincidentally, made numerous complaints regarding harrassment from a superior. While her actions were not acceptable and may have momentarily compromised the ability of surrounding officers to perform their duties, this is no way to treat a valued soldier and citizen despite, or especially because of, her volatile state. Her case also demonstrates that, although young white men record the highest rates of completed suicide, the horrors of war may very deeply affect all involved.

Of course, stigma remains the largest obstacle to treatment among service members themselves even as it recedes with time; is this reluctance to seek treatment an excuse for the military to move forward at an insufficient pace? Suicide prevention hotlines and personal surveys are not enough, and a surprising number of soldiers have received mental health-related dismissals - unfortunately, dismissing the problem hardly amounts to a solution. Traumatized and desperate service members deserve personal therapy from a qualified professional - as a medic and self-injury survivor puts it, she needs to "talk with a trained psychiatrist who's either been to war or understands war." The deeper his or her experience the better.

Will this service prove costly to provide? Certainly. But Lt. Whiteside represents the alternative. Cases like hers are hardly the norm; hundreds of thousands of individuals who've served return to lead healthy and productive lives. But these horror stories will only keep coming, and we need to hear them. Obscuring the difficulties of those who fight for us overseas is an insult to both the soldiers themselves and the citizens for whom they perform this invaluable service. Our President, in his final State of the Union address, harped on a painfully obvious need to "improve the system of care for our wounded warriors and help them build lives of hope and promise and dignity." Beautiful words; let's hope they're more than obligatory lip service and that both he and his successor, whoever it may be, work to build on this noble logic.

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