Rising military suicides and the mental health cost of the war

 In Afghanistan, Iraq

The Army Times reported last week that the number of veterans who commit suicide every day has risen to 18. Moreover, military suicides make up about 20% of all suicides in the U.S., suggesting that the problem is worse among the armed forces than in the general population since veterans make up only about 7.6% of the population. In fiscal year 2009, amongst those who had served in Afghanistan or Iraq, there were 98 suicides and 1868 failed suicide attempts; in January alone, there may have been as many as 24 suicides. As we reported previously, the number of Afghanistan and Iraq veterans who take their own lives every year –at least for now – exceed the number of combat deaths, making mental health problems one of the most severe and least acknowledged costs of war.

The fact that veteran suicides have been on the rise the last three years also suggests the strain of repeated deployments are one of the leading causes of the army’s suicide epidemic. According to TIME Magazine, the rate of military suicides has been increasing with respect to the general population. Moreover, suicide rates are higher among those who have been deployed, implying that the longer we are at war, the worse suicide rates will get among veterans. Several factors contribute to these climbing numbers, but the biggest appears to be the strain that continued deployments have on personal relationships:

Army leaders say that broken personal relationships seem to be the most common thread linking suicides. “The one transcendent factor that we seem to have, if there’s any one that’s associated with [suicide], is fractured relationships of some sort,” Lieut. General Eric Schoomaker, the Army surgeon general, told a Senate panel last month. What they fail to note, however, is the corrosive effect repeated deployments can have on such relationships. Ritchie pointed out in January that there are “higher rates of mental-health problems and marital problems for multiple deployers.”

Presumably, the problem is twofold – not only does distance erode personal relationships, but the stress of seeing combat makes it difficult to maintain these relationships when troops are given time to return home. This leads to another contributing factor: the psychological impact of seeing combat. From the previously cited TIME article, emphasis mine:

The problem is exacerbated by the manpower challenges faced by the service, because new research suggests that repeated combat deployments seem to be driving the suicide surge. The only way to apply the brakes will be to reduce the number of deployments per soldier and extend what the Army calls “dwell time” — the duration spent at home between trips to war zones. But the only way to make that possible would be to expand the Army’s troop strength, or reduce the number of soldiers sent off to war.

Partly because the military plays semantic games to disguise the number of soldiers who suffer from mental illnesses as a result of combat, military suicides are an oft-neglected cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Further, they are a problem that becomes worse as time passes, because our troops become spread more and more thinly. While the discussion around the wars typically revolve around physical military and civilian casualties, it is important to recognize the harm inflicted beneath the surface to those who are deployed in combat.

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