Army STARRS investigates rise in soldier suicides

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armystarrsIn 2010 and for the second year in a row, more soldiers died by suicide than in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan. The second stunner is that a high percentage of those suicides are among soldiers who have not yet been deployed.  What is going on?

This cannot be solely about combat-related PTSD.

I learned this on Friday at a National Institute for Mental Health (NIMH) Alliance for Research Progress meeting, where I represented Families for Depression Awareness.  In partnership with NIMH, the Army launched a Study to Assess Risk and Resilience in Service Members (Army STARRS), in part to understand patterns and predictors of suicide.

In addition to becoming excellent at preventing and addressing PTSD, a factor that likely plays a large role in Army suicides, I think it’s important to ask, how “like us” are these never-been-deployed soldiers who we lose to suicide?

Are more people who are likely to commit suicide now deciding to enroll – especially following a policy change allowing those previously hospitalized for a psychiatric illness to join? Is there something else different about these men and women – poverty rates, access to or willingness to access mental healthcare, family expectations, economic opportunity, interest in/willingness to serve – that explains this? Or, is this what is looks like when we take a group of Americans in 2011 and add rigorous combat training or the stress of an impending deployment to whatever is already going on in their lives, bodies and minds?  Are rates of mental illness rising everywhere, and does adding enough distress to a concentrated group during a specific window of time reveal this as suicide?

I don’t think I would have asked these questions upon reading the Army’s statistics before we lost my brother to suicide last year.  When news of his death spread throughout our hometown, and we began talking about his experience with bipolar disorder, dozens of people I grew up with told me their own, or of their family’s experience with mental illness.  In eighteen months, I’ve learned if I listen openly and curiously and for long enough, every family has mental illness, just like every family has physical illness. At first I was shocked. How could we have never talked about it or known what was going on for each other before? But the stories kept coming.  I'm still shocked, now because I realize mental illness is everywhere.

Whatever the reason for this rise in Army suicide, it’s promising that the organization that brought us GPS and microwave technology, and mass-produced the airplane, is now focusing on identifying predictors of suicide.  If the Army can mainstream mental health treatment among its ranks, and lead to general uptake everywhere, I would see this as a first-rate form of national defense.

This five-year Army and NIMH partnership just began in 2011, but findings will be released on an ongoing basis.  For more information on Army STARRS go to http://www.armystarrs.org/

--Jill Sheppard Davenport, Families for Depression Awareness volunteer

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