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Post by Former NIMH Director Thomas Insel: Reducing Suicide in the Military

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The U.S. Army recently released new suicide data for December 2009. Last month, there were 10 potential suicides among active duty soldiers, nine of which are pending confirmation. When added to the data for the rest of the year, the total number of reported suicides for 2009 among active duty soldiers is 160, 114 of which have been confirmed. By comparison, in 2008 there were 140 suicides among active duty soldiers.

These alarming numbers do not include suicides among reserve soldiers who are not on active duty. In 2009, there were 78 suicides—49 confirmed—among reserve soldiers not on active duty. By comparison, in 2008, there were 57 suicides within this group.

The suicide rate among soldiers began to rise significantly in 2002, and reached record levels by 2007. The Army has been very proactive in its efforts to address this crisis, but despite major intervention efforts, the suicide rate among Soldiers continues to rise. In addition to their many internal activities to reduce the rate of suicide and address mental health issues, in 2008 the Army initiated a partnership with NIMH to better understand the phenomenon. The result is the Study to Assess Risk and Resilience of Service Members (Army STARRS).

The largest mental health study of military personnel ever undertaken, the project has been called a Framingham study for the Army. What Framingham did for identifying risk and protective factors for cardiovascular disease, Army STARRS aims to do for suicide and associated mental health problems such as depression, anxiety disorders, and PTSD. The study will also provide a scientific basis for initiating effective and practical interventions to reduce suicide rates and address associated mental health problems in all populations.

Army STARRS is different from most research studies in that we won’t be waiting years for results. Rather, the interdisciplinary research team led by Robert Ursano, M.D., of the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences will provide data quickly and at regular intervals throughout the five-year study period so that the Army can use the information to tailor their interventions.  The goal is to reduce the suicide rate and get soldiers the help they need as quickly as possible.

There is no better time for this fortuitous study. No doubt, we all agree that mental disorders are some of the most stigmatized in our society. The same holds true among our military, where stigma often prevents soldiers who are dealing with issues like depression and PTSD from seeking and receiving the help they need.  By promising to deliver accurate, timely data to facilitate swift action, Army STARRS will allow the Army to address these issues openly and honestly with soldiers. Now is the time to take decisive action to banish the stigma attached to mental disorders. Army STARRS brings us one step closer to that reality.