AF suicide numbers near mid-1990s levels
Airmen are killing themselves at the highest rate in 15 years, and the brass is worried.
Eleven active-duty airmen had committed suicide through March 19, which projects to an annual rate of 13.7 suicides per 100,000 airmen. The numbers were already trending upward: The 2008 and 2009 rates were 12.4 and 12.5, after averaging fewer than 10 from 1998 through 2007. By comparison, the Army and Marine Corps had rates last year of 23 and 24. The Navy has not released its 2009 rate, but Air Force Times calculated it at 14.5 using data released by the service. The civilian suicide rate was 10.9 in 2006, the last year for which data are available.
Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz called attention to the rising rate in early March.
At a Senate hearing on the service’s proposed 2011 budget, Schwartz used a question from a lawmaker about the mental health challenges for unmanned aerial vehicle operators to bring up the service’s growing number of suicides.
Schwartz pointed out the importance of providing airmen with psychological support and having “commanders who care” about their airmen.
The Air Force has been a leader in suicide prevention for nearly 15 years. After watching its suicide rate peak at higher than 16 in the mid-1990s, the service established a prevention program focused on fostering a sense of community and identifying problems before airmen became suicidal. By the end of the decade, the suicide rate fell below 6.
Last year, the service decided to reassess its program. Today, the service is using a new interactive video to help airmen identify counterparts who are at risk, is tracking suicide data more closely and is urging everyone to be more open about their problems.
“If you have concerns about somebody, don’t ignore those,” said Lt. Col. Michael Kindt, a clinical psychologist. “Maybe they just didn’t get a good night’s sleep last night … or maybe it’s something that needs more engagement and more help.”
Enlisted male airmen are most likely to commit suicide. Men make up about 80 percent of the force and account for 95 percent of suicides; enlisted airmen are about 80 percent of the force and account for 90 percent of suicides, he said.
The career fields most at risk for suicide, according to Kindt:
— Security forces, because they have easy access to weapons.
— Intelligence officers, because they may be more hesitant to seek help because of security clearance concerns.
— Manned aircraft maintenance officers, for no readily apparent reason.
Psychologist David Rudd of the University of Utah, a nationally known suicide expert, attributes the Air Force’s relatively low rate — compared with the Army and Marine rates — to the service’s prevention program as well as its shorter deployments and more consistent operational tempo. Rudd, scientific director of the university’s National Center for Veterans Studies, has linked repeated exposure to combat with post-traumatic stress, depression and substance abuse — the top three causes of suicidal behavior.
In a speech at a suicide prevention conference, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen voiced strong suspicion that deployments are to blame for high suicide rates.
“There does not appear to be any scientific correlation between the number of deployments and those who are at risk, but I’m just hard-pressed to believe that’s not the case,” Mullen said. “I know we are and hope to continue to look [at deployments] first to peel back the causes to get to the root of this.”
The Air Force, according to Kindt, isn’t ready to draw a direct connection between deployment and suicide. He acknowledged, however, that deployment creates conditions — strained personal relationships, for example — that “increase the overall stress on the force.”
Air Force leaders have discussed the service’s prevention program with their counterparts in the Army, Marine Corps and Navy, Kindt said, and other services now have training and courses similar to the Air Force’s.
The Army launched the Comprehensive Soldier Fitness program in October to emphasize mental well-being as much as physical well-being. The Marine Corps now requires all new corporals to take a suicide-prevention course so they can identify at-risk Marines early.
Rudd praised the Defense Department’s efforts at suicide prevention but cautioned new programs take time to be effective.
For Rudd, the best way to prevent suicides in the military is to ensure that service members are not afraid or embarrassed to ask for help, a cornerstone of the Air Force’s prevention program.
The Air Force’s efforts have made a difference, Kindt said, especially in war time.
“We encourage people to be good wingmen, to look after people in the same way you’d look after your brother or cousin or friend back home,” he said. “That has set us up well to minimize the impact of the ongoing war on our suicide rates.”
By Tom Spoth - Staff writer - Air Force Times
Posted : Saturday Apr 10, 2010 12:19:50 EDT