The war in Iraq is over and the war in Afghanistan is close to the end, but the pace of military suicides is actually increasing to a record level this year.
According to Pentagon statistics, in the first 155 days of 2012 there was 154 suicides among active troops. This number is 50% more than the number killed in action in Afghanistan and is the highest number in 10 years, reports Guardian.
Among the reasons for the increase, studies have named combat exposure, post-traumatic stress, misuse of prescription medications and personal financial problems.
According to CBS News, at this point in 2011, 130 service members had killed themselves — in 2010, the number was 123. Suicides had decreased in 2010 and 2011, so this year’s surge has caught officials by surprise.
The war in Afghanistan is winding down and the last combat troops scheduled to leave at the end of 2014. But this year has seen record numbers of soldiers being killed by Afghan troops, reports The Huff Post, and there also have been several scandals involving U.S. troop misconduct.
Jackie Garrick, head of Defense Suicide Prevention Office at the Pentagon, said in an interview that the suicide numbers this year are troubling.
“We are very concerned at this point that we are seeing a high number of suicides at a point in time where we were expecting to see a lower number of suicides,” she said.
She also added that the weak U.S. economy may be confounding preventive efforts even as the pace of military deployments eases.
Dr. Stephen N. Xenakis, a practicing psychiatrist and a retired Army brigadier general, said the number of suicides reflect the level of tension as the U.S. eases out of Afghanistan though violence continues.
“It’s a sign in general of the stress the Army has been under over the 10 years of war,” he said in an interview. “We’ve seen before that these signs show up even more dramatically when the fighting seems to go down and the Army is returning to garrison.”
U.S. Marines have recently had the most success in lowering their suicide numbers, which are up slightly this year but are roughly in line with levels of the past four years.
The Army’s numbers also are up slightly. The Air Force has seen a jump, to 32 through June 3 compared to 23 at the same point last year. The Navy is slightly above its 10-year trend line but down a bit from 2011.
Since 2006 when the suicide numbers began surging, the Army has hired more mental health workers and instituted training designed to help troops recognize the warning signs of suicide and remove the stigma of asking for help, which many soldiers still see as a confession of weakness.
The military services have set up confidential telephone hotlines, added training in stress management, placed more mental health specialists on the battlefield, invested more in research on mental health risk and taken other measures.
The troubling statistics has caught the attention of Defense Secretary Leon Panetta who last month he sent an internal memo to the Pentagon’s top civilian and military leaders in which he called suicide “one of the most complex and urgent problems” facing the Defense Department.
“We must continue to fight to eliminate the stigma from those with post-traumatic stress and other mental health issues,” Panetta wrote, adding that commanders “cannot tolerate any actions that belittle, haze, humiliate or ostracize any individual, especially those who require or are responsibly seeking professional services.”