Panetta urges greater emphasis on mental health

In confronting a surge of suicides within the military, commanding officers must make it understood that seeking help for the stresses of war should be seen as a sign of strength rather than as a sign of weakness, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said Friday.

Panetta said the end of the war in Iraq and the beginning of a drawdown in Afghanistan should ease some of the strain on the nation's troops, but it will not solve the problem of military suicides. He noted that more than half of the military members who committed suicide have no history of deployment.

Pentagon statistics obtained by The Associated Press earlier this month indicated that suicides have spiked this year to about one per day, a 50 percent increase over the same period in 2011 and higher than the rate of combat deaths.

Panetta said part of the solution lies with commanding officers who have day-to-day contact with their troops.

"We have to make clear that we will not tolerate actions that belittle, that haze, that ostracize any individual, particularly those who have made the decision to seek professional help," Panetta said in a speech to mental health professionals focused on reducing suicides by veterans and soldiers.

At times, military leaders have sent mixed messages about the problem. Earlier this year, Maj. Gen. Dana Pittard, commander of the 1st Armored Division, drew a public rebuke from the Army when he said he was personally fed up with soldiers who chose to take their own lives, forcing others to "clean up their mess." Pittard also counseled soldiers to seek help as part of his commentary.

He subsequently retracted but did not apologize for the comments he made in an Army blog.

Panetta said he believes the military must work to remove the stigma that so often surrounds mental health issues. He said the military will also work with other government agencies on research in suicide prevention and pledged to elevate mental fitness to the same level of importance as physical fitness.

Panetta's comments came on the third day of a conference organized by the Defense and Veterans Affairs departments. As part of the conference, family members of suicide victims also spoke about missteps they believe the military made that may have prevented the loss of life.

Five family members described scenarios in which they believed the military missed or simply ignored warning signs of a solider crying out for help.

Ben Harris of Georgia said his brother, Marine Lance Cpl. Michael Harris, killed himself in February 2012. Harris said his brother was prescribed medicine after complaining of anxiety and depression, but when he went back for additional help, he was told by a nurse that the staff could no longer treat him because he admitted to drinking too much and subsequently qualified for having substance abuse problems.

"He left the office that day and he called me and told me he would only be going back one more time — to let them know he would no longer be requiring their services," Harris said. "This was a few weeks before Michael killed himself," Ben Harris said.

Harris said the admission of alcohol use or substance abuse should not be used against service members, but should be treated as the symptom of an illness and treated.

Panetta called suicide perhaps the most frustrating challenge he has come across since becoming defense secretary, in part because the trend is heading in the wrong direction even as more resources are aimed at the problem.