Personal Health

Army Suicides in January Outnumbered Combat Deaths

The NIMH is spending $50 million on research to figure out why. Doesn't common sense tell us enough?

The U.S. Army recently reported that for the month of January in 2009, the number of soldiers who committed suicide surpassed the number of soldiers who were killed in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan. While there were 16 U.S. combat deaths, the Army believes that there were 24 suicides (the Army has confirmed seven suicides, and it believes that investigators will confirm an additional 17 other deaths as suicides). The number of suicides in January 2009 is more than five times as many as the total in January 2008.

Overall in 2008, suicides in the Army rose for the fourth straight year. Army statistics, which include the Army Reserve and National Guard, confirm 128 suicides (with 15 more deaths under investigation). Suicides for the Marines also have been increasing, with 41 in 2008, up from 33 in 2007 and 25 in 2006.

Why the increase in suicides? Col. Kathy Platoni, chief clinical psychologist for the Army Reserve and National Guard, told CNN that she sees the multiple deployments and stigma associated with seeking treatment as two of the reasons. Another cause, Platoni added, may be the excessive use of antidepressants for troubled soldiers.

Why? According to the Food and Drug Administration "black box" warnings on Prozac and other so-called antidepressants, "Antidepressants increased the risk compared to placebo of suicidal thinking and behavior (suicidality) in children, adolescents and young adults."

U.S. governmental officials want Americans to feel assured that the government is scientifically ascertaining the reasons why soldiers are increasingly killing themselves and how to prevent this. In November 2008, the National Institute of Mental Health announced that it and the Army had entered into an agreement to conduct a $50 million study on suicide and suicidal behavior among soldiers.

The NIMH press release states, "The joint project will strengthen the Army’s efforts to reduce suicide among its soldiers by identifying risk and protective factors for suicidal thinking and behavior."

Do we need to give $50 million to NIMH psychiatrists and psychologists to discover that when one has been in, or is currently in, or is about to be deployed to a miserable, terrifying, traumatizing place, it is more likely that one will feel suicidal?

Don’t hold your breath waiting for a study sponsored by the NIMH and the U.S. Army to include this obvious recommendation: the best mental health treatment to prevent suicide in our soldiers is getting them the hell out of a war zone if the vast majority of Americans believe that the war is unnecessary.

Too many mental health professionals' idea of a "good outcome" is for a troubled person to adapt to a miserable, dehumanizing environment in a way that causes the least problems for authorities. Too few shrinks recognize that the best "treatment" sometimes means assisting a troubled person to get out of a miserable environment, or to radically alter an environment instead of chemically altering the person suffering in it.

I suggest that instead of spending $50 million to help psychiatrists and psychologists beef up their curriculum vitaes, we directly ask soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan to tell us what they think -- and divide that $50 million among responding soldiers. Do soldiers think that more mental-health treatment is the answer? If so, what kind of treatment? If not mental health treatment, what are their solutions? Then, let’s actually do what the soldiers suggest.

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Bruce E. Levine, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist and author of Surviving America's Depression Epidemic: How to Find Morale, Energy and Community in a World Gone Crazy (Chelsea Green, 2007). His Web site is