WASHINGTON — The Army's vice chief of staff on Tuesday called the Army's record suicide rate this year "horrible" and said the problem of soldiers taking their own lives is the toughest he has faced in his 37 years in service.
As of Monday, 140 soldiers on active duty and 71 soldiers not on active duty were suspected to have committed suicide. "We are almost certainly going to end the year higher than last year," which was also a record for Army suicides, Gen. Peter Chiarelli said at a Pentagon news conference.
"This is horrible," he said. "Every single loss is devastating."
However, Chiarelli, who has made suicide prevention a priority, said that despite the high total, the monthly suicide rate has declined since January.
In January and February, there were about 40 suicides, or nearly one-third of the total this year, and since March the general trend has been down, with the exception of a couple of months, he said. He attributed that progress primarily to a campaign to increase the involvement of Army leaders at all ranks in suicide prevention efforts.
Chiarelli said that in more than 40 percent of the cases this year, the soldier involved had seen a behavioral health specialist. The Army is short an estimated 800 behavioral health specialists, he said.
Substance abuse, which can be related to mental health problems and suicide, is on the rise in the Army, Chiarelli said, but he added that the force is also short about 300 substance abuse counselors.
The Army has launched a pilot program to have soldiers returning from overseas undergo an immediate half-hour evaluation by mental health providers. In the one battalion that has participated in the program so far, the evaluations led to double the referral rate for mental health issues compared with soldiers who simply filled out a post-deployment assessment form, according to Brig. Gen. Richard Thomas, the Army's assistant surgeon general for force protection.