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Army Suicide Rate Climbs; Few Sought Counseling

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Suicides among active-duty soldiers rose to 115 last year, a 13 percent increase over the previous year, say top Army officials.

And the suicide rate of 18.8 per 100,000 was the highest rate since 1980, when records were first kept. Still, that rate was lower than the comparable age group in the general population, which was 19.5 per 100,000.

The overall increase in numbers is troubling to Army officials, who are grappling with how to respond. They are offering more training to soldiers, sergeants and chaplains to help them spot the warning signs that a soldier is considering suicide.

The Army is also hiring more mental health workers, an additional 180 over the past year.

Col. Elspeth Ritchie, a psychiatric consultant to the Army's surgeon general, told reporters that the main cause of suicides is failed relationships.

Those relationships are strained by long and repeated deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, Ritchie said.

"All too commonly, a soldier will get a "Dear John" or a "Dear Jane" e-mail and then go and shoot themselves," Ritchie said, "and that is often very hard to prevent."

"When those relationships break," said Col. Charles Reese, an Army chaplain, "it tends to be a strong contributing factor to the consideration of death as an option."

Fifty percent of those who committed suicide had a recent failed relationship, say Army officials.

A study that accompanied the release of the latest suicide figures showed that suicides were more common among young, white males who were unmarried and were junior enlisted soldiers.

Nearly 50 percent of those who killed themselves did so after they returned home.

About one quarter of those who committed suicide were on their first deployment, while another quarter were never deployed overseas.

Just 7 percent of the soldiers had served two or more deployments to Iraq or Afghanistan when they killed themselves.

The majority of suicides did not have a known history of a mental disorder; just 6 percent of the suicide cases included a prior diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.

The majority of the soldiers did not seek mental health care before taking their own lives.

Last year, the Army launched a Web site, Army Behavioral Health, as a way for soldiers and family members to get information on mental and behavioral health issues and to learn about available resources.

There were 166 suicide attempts reported as having occurred in either Iraq or Afghanistan. Younger, lower-enlisted females were overrepresented for suicide attempts compared with completions — a phenomenon that mirrors the general population.

There were just five women among the 115 active-duty Army suicides last year, according to Army statistics.

There was a significant relationship between suicide attempts and the number of days deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan. The second quarter of deployments showed the highest frequency of attempts.

The Army has already announced it will reduce the lengths of tour in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Troops deploying there after August 1 will spend one year in-country, rather than the current 15-month tour.

But the Army still has its work cut out for it to reduce the number of suicides. From the beginning of January through last week, the Army has 50 confirmed or suspected suicides.

Lt. Col. Thomas Languirand said the number of suicides in 2008 is "approximately the same as they were" at this time one year ago.