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Army Suicides Due to Lack of Oversight?

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Reviewed by John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on July 30, 2010

Army Suicides Due to Lack of Oversight?The U.S. Army today released the findings of an internal investigation into the rise of suicides in their ranks. The report suggests that it’s been the Army’s “permissive” attitude toward soldiers and their drug and alcohol abuse that has contributed to the increase in suicides.

The internal investigation was commissioned last year by Army commander Gen. Peter Chiarelli, who is the second in command. He says the permissive attitude — where soldiers are allowed to take risks, refuse treatment for drug and alcohol problems, and even commit criminal offenses while remaining enlisted — is linked to a tally of deaths last year that included 160 active-duty soldiers who committed suicide and 146 more who died during risky activity or behavior such as drug use. Seventy-four of those deaths were drug overdoses. The Army noted there were also 1,713 attempted suicides last year.

“This is tragic,” Chiarelli writes in a directive to be sent out to soldiers. “We must realize that on occasion we need to do the right thing for both the soldier and the Army through firm enforcement of discipline, retention and separation polices.”

The report grew out of a series of visits to six Army installations directed by Casey and led by Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Peter Chiarelli in Spring 2009 to look at suicide prevention efforts in the force.

“What we witnessed were real indicators of stress on the force, and an increasing propensity for Soldiers to engage in high risk behavior,” Chiarelli said. “We recognized almost immediately we had to widen the aperture – risk in the force cannot be mitigated by suicide prevention alone.”

“This comprehensive review exposes gaps in how we identify, engage, and mitigate high-risk behavior among our soldiers. After nearly a decade of war we must keep pace with the expanding needs of our strained Army, and continuously identify and address the gaps that exist in our policies, programs and services,” said Chief of Staff Gen. George W. Casey Jr.

Casey told the Army’s two- and three-star commanders and command sergeants major recently that “our challenge over the next several years will be to maintain our combat edge at an appropriate tempo while reestablishing garrison systems to better care for our soldiers and families. The combination of Comprehensive Soldier Fitness with these health promotion efforts provides the foundation to improve the resilience of the force.”

Unprecedented operational tempo has dictated that leaders remain primarily focused on preparing for their next deployment. As a result, enforcement of policies designated to ensure good order and discipline has atrophied. This, in turn, has led to an increasing population of Soldiers who display high risk behavior which erodes the health of the force.

The U.S. Army report is entitled the Health Promotion, Risk Reduction, and Suicide Prevention (HP/RR/SP) Report, and attempts to be a comprehensive, transparent review. It outlines and defines problems, documents actions taken, and makes recommendations for how the Army can make substantive changes.

Key findings include:

  • Gaps in the current HP/RR/SP policies, processes and programs necessary to mitigate high risk behaviors;
  • An erosion of adherence to existing Army policies and standards;
  • An increase in indicators of high risk behavior including illicit drug use, other crimes and suicide attempts;
  • Lapses in surveillance and detection of high risk behavior;
  • An increased use of prescription antidepressants, amphetamines and narcotics;
  • Degraded accountability of disciplinary, administrative and reporting processes; and
  • The continued high rate of suicides, high risk related deaths and other adverse outcomes.

“These findings demonstrate that many of our programs are unbalanced and lack integration, while reinforcing recommendations that will help us improve the quality of our programs and services,” Chiarelli said.

Secretary of the Army John McHugh has directed that leaders at all levels become familiar with the report. It informs leaders throughout the force about the consequences associated with high risk behavior; provides a candid, transparent and balanced review of HP/RR/SP issues; documents the Army’s actions to date to improve programs and services; integrates policies, processes and programs for oversight of the force; and recommends solutions to eliminate gaps and unnecessary redundancies.

Programs must be realigned to improve support to the Soldier, Family and unit. Reporting and data-sharing on high risk behavior among unit commanders, medical and garrison service providers, and law enforcement officials must be synchronized. The report also promotes continued use of the Department of the Army’s Health Promotion Council which has aggressively addressed this issue for a year-and-a-half.

Report recommendations represent the next phase of the campaign which has already implemented more than 200 separate initiatives over the last 15 months. For example, the Army tightened enlistment standards; established a Community Health Promotion Council at each installation; improved access and coordination between primary (medical) care and behavioral health providers; worked to stabilize unit leadership after redeployment; expanded behavioral health screening; instituted a confidential alcohol treatment program; aggressively recruited new behavioral health counselors; and created 72 new positions for chaplains, among other things.

“Continued focus on mentoring and training our leaders and service providers is key to fixing these problems. Part of leadership is creating an environment where it’s okay to ask for help—and where it’s our duty to extend a helping hand,” Chiarelli said. “This, too, is in keeping with the Army Warrior Ethos to never leave a fallen comrade.”

Report findings indicate that there are no universal solutions to address the complexities of personal, social and behavioral health issues that lead to suicide.

“We’ve often said that the Army is a reflection of society, but we have soldiers today who are experiencing a lifetime of stress during their first six years of service. Army leaders at all levels remain dedicated to promoting resiliency, coping skills, and help-seeking behavior across our force,” Chiarelli said.

Source: U.S. Army

Download the report (PDF)

 

APA Reference
NewsEditor, P. (2010). Army Suicides Due to Lack of Oversight?. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 22, 2014, from http://psychcentral.com/news/2010/07/29/army-suicides-due-to-lack-of-oversight/16223.html