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July 17, 2009

Link Between Army Suicides, Deployment Remains Uncertain

It has long been suspected that there is a direct link between repeat combat tours for U.S. soldiers and the rise in suicides among them; however researchers and officials claim that it is still not clearly understood.

Robert Ursano of the Uniformed Services University in Maryland told reporters," It is not true that repeated deployments are the primary factor involved in the suicide issue."

"There's no question that repeated deployments increase stress on individuals, and increase stress on families and stress on the community. But it's a much more complicated picture," said Ursano, who is the director of a major new study observing mental health and suicide among U.S. Army's ranks.

Approximately one-third of Army suicide cases were committed by soldiers that had never deployed for combat duty in Iraq or Afghanistan, according to a statement made by U.S. Army Secretary Pete Geren at the same press conference.

Another third take their lives while deployed and the remaining third have deployed at some point, Geren said.

The steady rise in suicides over the last two years has caused great concern among the military. Top officers have repeatedly suggested that combat tours as a likely factor.

Last year 128 soldiers took their lives, which is a significant increase from 115 in 2007.

In just the first half of 2009, the number of suspected suicides had already reached 88, whereas the same period last year showed 67, according to recently released figures.

Up until 2008, the military had a lower suicide rate than the broader civilian population.

Last year, the suicide rate among active duty soldiers was up to 20.2 per 100,000, which surpasses a demographically adjusted national suicide rate of 19.5 per 100,000 in 2005, the latest year on record.

Army vice chief of staff General Peter Chiarelli says the number of suicides has decreased a little in the past four and a half months, but it is too early to see if the trend will persist.

"We feel better about our efforts in the last four and a half months to at least reduce the number. And we hope we will continue to do that with some of our intervention programs," the general said.

According to Chiarelli, the Army is continuing its search for the most effective methods to contend with suicide and that they had commissioned the largest study of suicide and mental health ever conducted in the military in order to get to he bottom of the issue.

Various factors that are potentially associated with suicide will be looked at in the study, such as combat-related trauma, personal and economic stress, family history, childhood abuse, a military unit's cohesion and general mental health.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), which will be carrying out the research, the study will cost $50 million and will include a survey of up to 120,000 of the recruits who enter the Army annually.

Around 90,000 active-duty Army personnel will be surveyed in the study and have their saliva and blood taken as samples for genetic and neurobiological studies.

The data will be reviewed by the research team along with interviews with soldiers who have attempted suicide in the past. They will then compare the findings to persons with similar demographic details.

The incredibly involved study will likely last for five years in an effort to quickly recognize important "risk factors" that could end in suicide and identify the most effective methods in preventing soldiers from taking their own lives, said NIMH director Thomas Insel.

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