Fort Bragg, N.C. — Mental health experts at Fort Bragg said Wednesday that deployments are not necessarily to blame for an upward trend of suicides in the Army.
Officials met Wednesday to discuss what they are doing to help bring down the number of suicides at the Army base in North Carolina. So far this year, the base has seen four confirmed suicides, with two other deaths under investigation. The base saw six suicides in all of 2009, 13 suicides in 2008 and 10 people kill themselves in 2007.
Across the country, the number of suicide attempts by Army personnel has increased six-fold since the start of wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Last year, suicide claimed the lives of 245 active duty, reserve and National Guard soldiers.
Larry Holland, Fort Bragg's suicide prevention program team leader, said the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are just one of several factors that lead to suicidal behavior. About 35 percent of soldiers who die by suicide have never deployed, Holland said. Failures in relationships, job performance or finances are also major elements. Transition is also a major concern.
"You keep compounding things with multiple deployments, it doesn't help shaky relationships," Holland said. "Not only deployments, but when a soldier comes out of basic. That is a big transition. When they join the Army or change duty stations, they leave friends and family. That is a real stress."
Holland said Fort Bragg has been very proactive in addressing suicides at the base. Since January, the post has hired two additional professional suicide prevention specialists and averages three ASIST workshops a month. Last year, Fort Bragg held 48 of its special workshops, called Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training. The ASIST programs trained more than 450 soldiers and civilians.
ASIST differs from the Army's ACE (ask, care, escort) training, given to every soldier, because it is an intervention model created to stop a soldier from attempting suicide. Before, the Army encouraged a soldier simply to call for help. The new training has them essentially doing mental first aid, trying to work a buddy through the suicidal thoughts and problems.
About 450 soldiers at Fort Bragg have undergone ASIST two-day workshop that alerts soldiers to the warning signs of suicidal behavior.
“The Army has changed, I would say, drastically in the last several years with the attitude that, if you seek help, it is encouraged and it is seen as a sign of strength as opposed as hurting you professionally or career-wise,” Suicide Prevention Manager Larry Holland said.
Soldiers might worry that mental health issues will affecttheir security clearance, but Crandell said that has changed. A questionnaire now asks aside from marital, deployment and other personal issues, has the soldier sought mental health counseling.
“So you don’t have to disclose if you’re going in to see someone for mental counseling or something like that. That’s not part of the process in terms of being a factor in security clearance.”
He said every unit undergoes a suicide risk inventory at least once a year, and a mental health reassessment is conducted 90 to 120 days after a soldier returns from deployment. That’s when “the honeymoon has worn off,” said Crandell, and stresses may be piling up.
Col. Edward Crandell, the behavioral health director at Womack Army Medical Center, said the number of psychologists in his center has increased from about five in 2004 to roughly 25 now.
If soldiers aren’t sure where to go, experts said a good first step is to go to their chaplains. There are 200 agencies on post and in the community that can help soldiers with mental distress.
The Army recently produced a 16-minute suicide prevention video, accessible online, for soldiers.