Military suicides are no longer merely a problem. They are a crisis: despite all the efforts being made to stop soldiers from taking their own lives, the numbers keep rising. Last year, the Pentagon committed itself to new intervention programs and greater discussion of mental health in the ranks. But suicides jumped from 301 in 2011 to 349 in 2012. That’s compared to 295 Americans who died in combat.
There are two major categories of suicide victims: Some are those who have fought in Iraq or Afghanistan and are suffering from post-traumatic stress. But a larger number are those who have yet to be deployed but may be under other stresses, such as financial needs or distance from family. Unfortunately, the military expects these numbers to grow, as budget cuts and the transition to civilian society lay on more demands.
Chuck Hagel, President Obama’s nominee for defense secretary, declared last week that reassessing suicide prevention efforts would be a priority if he is confirmed. There is much to do; soldiers and their families describe a disorganized mental health program that can be difficult to access. And doing more of the same may not be the best approach. Hagel’s challenge is to convince soldiers with mental needs to come forward, without fear of retribution or ostracism.
Right now, the Pentagon’s efforts can only be judged by the numbers. And they suggest there is a crisis.