WASHINGTON – As many as 121 Army soldiers committed suicide in 2007, a jump of some 20 percent over the year before, officials said Thursday.
The rise comes despite numerous efforts to improve the mental health of a force stressed by a longer-than-expected war in Iraq and the most deadly year yet in the now six-year-old conflict in Afghanistan.
Internal briefing papers prepared by the Army's psychiatry consultant early this month show there were 89 confirmed suicides last year and 32 deaths that are suspected suicides and still under investigation.
More than a quarter of those — about 34 — happened during deployments in Iraq, an increase from 27 in Iraq the previous year, according to the preliminary figures.
The report also shows an increase in the number of attempted suicides and self-injuries — some 2,100 in 2007 compared to less than 1,500 the previous year and less than 500 in 2002.
The total of 121 suicides last year, if all are confirmed, would be more than double the 52 reported in 2001, before the Sept. 11 attacks prompted the Bush administration to launch its counter-terror war. The toll was 87 by 2005 and 102 in 2006.
Officials said the rate of suicides per 100,000 active duty soldiers has not yet been calculated for 2007. But in a half million-person active duty Army, the 2006 toll of 102 translated to a rate of 17.5 per 100,000, the highest since the Army started counting in 1980, officials said. The rate has fluctuated over those years, with the low being 9.1 per 100,000 in 2001.
That toll and rate for 2006 is a revision from figures released in August because a number of pending cases have since been concluded. Officials earlier had reported 99 soldiers killed themselves in 2006 and two cases were pending — as opposed to the 102 now confirmed. It's common for investigations to take some time and for officials to study results at length before releasing them publicly.
Col. Elspeth Ritchie, the psychiatry consultant to the Army surgeon general, has said that officials found failed personal relationships, legal and financial problems and the stress of their jobs have been main factors in soldiers' suicides. Officials also have found that the number of days troops are deployed in Iraq, Afghanistan or nearby countries contributes to that stress.
With the Army stretched thin by years of fighting the two wars, the Pentagon last year extended normal tours of duty to 15 months from 12 and has sent some troops back to the wars several times. The Army has been hoping to reduce tour lengths this summer. But the prospect could depend heavily on what Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, recommends when he gives his assessment of security in Iraq and troop needs to Congress in April.
A succession of studies on mental health in the military have found a system that might have been adequate for peacetime has been overwhelmed by troops coming home from war. Some troop surveys in Iraq have shown that 20 percent of Army soldiers have signs and symptoms of post-traumatic stress, which can cause flashbacks of traumatic combat experiences and other severe reactions. About 35 percent of soldiers are seeking some kind of mental health treatment a year after returning home under a program that screens returning troops for physical and mental health problems, officials have said.
Officials have worked to set up a number of new programs and strengthen old ones for providing mental health care to the force. The Army also has been working to stem the stigma associated with getting therapy for mental problems, after officials found that troops are avoiding counseling out of fear it could harm their careers.