A culture in need of change

The U.S. Army reported a record number of suicides for June. Soldiers killed themselves at a rate of one per day, making it the worst month on record for Army suicides.

Of the 32 confirmed or suspected suicides among soldiers in June, 21 were among active duty troops and 11 among National Guard or Reserve forces.

Seven soldiers killed themselves while in combat in Iraq or Afghanistan, according to the Army. Of the total, 22 soldiers had been in combat, including 10 who had who had deployed two to four times.

These grim statistics arrived just weeks before the release of an Army report that fixes blame for a record number of suicides in the past several years.

It notes repeated deployments may be partly to blame for the increased suicides, but that sometimes those who killed themselves had only one deployment or none at all.

The report put a large part of the blame on commanders who either failed to recognize or disregarded high-risk behavior among their troops, the New York Times reported.

Yes, better to blame the stressed commanders in the field, than point to a decades-long systemic failure of our military system to integrate meaningful mental health education and services into basic training, ongoing training and follow-up with veterans.

The report also blamed the quality of recruits for the higher number of suicides, noting that standards had been lowered in order to meet recruiting goals. Of 80,403 waivers granted since 2004, the report found that 47,478 were granted to people with a history of drug or alcohol abuse, misdemeanor crime or “serious misconduct,” which it defined as committing a felony.

The report, however, doesn’t offer statistics showing that it’s those recruits who are killing themselves more often.

The military makes this urgent issue difficult to digest because every report exists in a vacuum. The statistics above are for only one branch of the military, even though the Marines, for example, have an even higher suicide rate than the Army. (Until recently, the Veterans Administration did not track suicides among veterans, unless they killed themselves at a VA facility.)

A recent development, decades belated, that will actually help is the easing of requirements for awarding disability pay to veterans diagnosed with post traumatic stress. Before, veterans had to document “the stressor” that caused their condition by searching unit records or gathering witness statements, military columnist Tom Philpott reported.

Getting rid of that major roadblock to help is the first meaningful step to changing a military culture in which seeking help with mental health issues is seen as a weakness.