Initial data show Marine suicides declined in 2010

The number of Marine suicides dropped dramatically in 2010 after reaching a record high the previous year, according to preliminary figures released by the Marine Corps.

Marines, who are leading the war in Afghanistan, have had the highest suicide rate in the military after doubling from 2006 to 2009, when it reached an all-time high of 52 deaths since it began tracking them.

Last year, that number fell to 37 deaths, a 29 percent decrease over 2009, said Lt. Cmdr. Andrew Martin, manager of the Marine Corps Suicide Prevention Program. The number still must be confirmed by the armed forces commander but Martin said the early figures usually are on par with the final numbers released in March.

Martin said it is difficult to pinpoint an exact reason for the drop but he said prevention efforts appear to be changing the mindset of troops in a branch of the military where toughness and self-reliance have been especially prized for generations.

"We're not sure why the drop has happened," Martin told The Associated Press on Thursday. "We do know that Marine attitudes toward mental fitness, toward seeking help, are starting to change and that may be related to the drop."

The number of attempted suicides is still on the rise with 173 in 2010 compared to 164 in 2009, an increase Martin said may be due to more vigorous recording of the incidents.

The Marine Corps in 2009 became more aggressive in addressing the problem with its top commanders speaking often about the issue and publicly urging troops to not hold back in seeking help.

The military's smallest force also put into action a slew of prevention efforts that year, including a program that trains rank-and-file Marines to talk to their fellow troops and spot the signs of trouble. Another one has given intense suicide prevention training to noncommissioned officers, who are the closest supervisory figures to the troops.

"Not as many Marines before thought it was safe to go seek help," Martin said. "Now they are realizing it is not only safe as far as their career goes, it is also my duty as a Marine to stay fit not only physically but mentally."

Mental health professionals, including social workers, psychologists and psychiatrists, have been added to the staffs of 18 naval hospitals to treat Marines and sailors, who serve with Marine units on the ground as corpsman, said Cmdr. Cappy Surette, a Navy Medicine spokesman.

Martin said there is still much to be done. This year, the Marine Corps will be beefing up its suicide prevention training higher up the ladder, focusing on staff noncommissioned officers and senior noncommissioned officers.

"We're absolutely not satisfied with 37 suicides," he said. "We're glad for the drop but there is nothing positive about having 37 deaths. We're headed in the right direction but (this means) keep working harder."