Army: No crisis in jump in Iraq soldier suicides

/ Source: The Associated Press

The suicide rate among American soldiers in Iraq is much higher than for the Army as a whole, but officials said Wednesday that mental health experts have concluded there is no crisis.

A team of mental health experts visited soldiers in Iraq and Kuwait last year, following an alarming jump in suicides in July, and after months of deliberation have presented Army leaders with a series of recommendations on ways that mental stress among soldiers can be handled better.

The Army planned to publicly announce the team’s findings and recommendations Thursday.

There were at least 24 suicides among U.S. soldiers in Iraq and Kuwait last year, according to the Army’s count. That number may increase because the circumstances of some other deaths are still in doubt.

That equates to a suicide rate of 17.3 per 100,000 soldiers, compared with a rate of 12.8 for the Army as a whole in 2003 and an average rate of 11.9 for the Army during the 1995-2002 period, according to officials familiar with the mental health study. They spoke on condition of anonymity.

The 24 suicides do not include soldiers who killed themselves after returning to the United States.

The ties that bind
The overall U.S. civilian suicide rate during 2001 was 10.7 per 100,000, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The U.S. civilian rate for the 18-34 age group, which is the age range of most soldiers, is 21.5 per 100,000.

The common threads that investigators found in the circumstances of the 24 soldiers who committed suicide were personal financial problems, failed personal relationships and legal problems, officials said.

They also found — as have previous Army probes of increases in the suicide rate during the 1990s — that soldiers tend to avoid seeking help with stress or other mental health problems for fear of being stigmatized.

The team of Army mental health specialists surveyed about 750 soldiers in Iraq and Kuwait between August and October and found that while stress was an issue, as might be expected in a combat zone, 77 percent described their stress as mild or minimal. Seven percent reported severe stress.