Depression is the first step toward suicide

Suicide is a difficult subject about which to write as most people are simple uncomfortable discussing the reason for it. While there is a lot published on the subject with many seeking to find The Cause, evidence as to why someone commits suicide is all over the mapeven more so for those who have served in the military.

In the past military personnel have had a much lower suicide rate than the population at large according to national suicide statistics from the Centers for Disease Control among civilians the rate for males age 20-29 were around 20 per 100,000 during the first half of this decade. Since the start of the war in Iraq and Afghanistan the Army said its suicide rate is now a bit higher than for civilians for the first time. As an example, the rate was 9 per 100,000 among those who had served on active duty in the Army (prior to 2001), but rose to 20.2 per 100,000 by 2008, and has steadily increased since.

More U.S. military personnel took their own lives in 2009 than were killed in either the Afghanistan or Iraq wars this year, according to a Congressional Quarterly compilation of the latest statistics from the armed services. Many senior members of Congress say they believe there is a connection. Rep. John P. Murtha, D-Pa., who was chairman of the House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee and a Marine Corps veteran of Vietnam, attributed the rising mental health problems to a lack of time at home between deployments.

Army leaders say they are unable to conclude that the deployments or the time between deployments are the main cause of the suicide increase one-third of the active-duty soldiers who killed themselves in 2009 have no deployment history, according to Army Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Peter Chiarelli.

As typical of any study that is done on perplexing issues, theories abound. Text-book theorists are a dime a dozen these days trying to solve all that ails our great country. The suicide issue is no exceptionand to think we the taxpayer pay for many such studies.

I am not a deep thinker when it comes to psychological issues, nor have I received much psychology training in my early medical studies, but most everyone looks past the common sense reasoning which is probably the cause of suicide in many instances.

Lets start by looking at societal issues and the vast changes during the Johnson administration back in the Sixties. This was a period of time when vast amounts of federal spending began on the Great Society Programs and were continually expanded by both the Nixon and Ford administration. The sweeping programs that were enacted drastically altered the family unit and the idea that personal responsibility was the key to behavioral standards.

The main goals of the many new social programs were to address racial issues and eliminate poverty noble goals as most such programs initially start, but ended up becoming programs that took reliance off the individuals shoulders and the idea of family support, and placed them in the care of government. The War on Poverty began with the Model Cities Program for urban redevelopment; Upward Bound, which assisted poor high school students entering college; legal services for the poor; the Food Stamps program; the Community Action Program, which initiated local Community Action Agencies, and Project Head Start, all aimed at lower income families as a helping hand. Instead of accomplishing its goal it became a series of trillion dollar programs that caused the collapse of the traditional family, two-parent structure, and allowed fathers to foster children and let the state take care of them, mentality.

Charles Murray, for example, argues that ultimately the Great Society had little impact on poverty but instead led to an increase in welfare dependency and family disintegration, particularly among the urban poor. Libertarian economist Thomas Sowell argues that the Great Society programs only contributed to the destruction of African American families, saying “the black family, which had survived centuries of slavery and discrimination, began rapidly disintegrating in the liberal welfare state that subsidized unwed pregnancy and changed welfare from an emergency rescue to a way of life.” The same holds true for Hispanics and undereducated whites who have fallen under the spell of government dependency.

“In the sixties we waged a war on poverty, and poverty won,” Ronald Reagan

Most people would probably agree with President Ronald Reagan today. There is a widespread perception that the federal government’s efforts to help the poor during the sixties were almost unlimited; that despite all the programs, which initially had the appearance of helping, poverty became more severe, not less; and that the reason poverty increased is that all those government programs backfired and left their intended beneficiaries worse off.

Why is this so important to know when discussing the roots of suicide in the military today? Did we see such high rates of suicide following the first and second World Wars? Did suicides bring such national attention after the Korean War? Following all wars, the soldiers, airmen, and sailors that went off to fight them all had transitioning issues facing them when they returned home BUT most were able to return to a family unit to offer supportthe same family unit that had both mother and father in the picture when they were growing up.

The family is very important in society. It is also a harbinger of hope and the first to be affected in a “deteriorating social and economic environment. The family is the most important unit of society and plays an essential role in fulfilling the emotional and physical needs of the individual, which is required for achieving economic and social development. The single family household often lacks the stability of the two-parent family, and it should be to no ones dismay that we perceive life in how we were brought up.

In my course of research for this article I came across a writer who was trying to relate the reason for suicide to the trauma dating back to birth; that perhaps suicide may be related to western birthing practices which were becoming more stressful and painful to the fetus. As I said early-on, there are many trying to find the root cause of suicide, but looking at this angle , to me, was pushing the limits of believability. Were it a truism, most of us would be suicidal.

So, if we start with the deterioration of the family unit as the possible root cause, where do we go from here and why the sudden increase the last 3-4 years?

Lets dissect the issue one step at a time:
A. Todays troops are experiencing multiple deployment, with little time to recoup in between
B. Many enter the military right out of high school or upon graduation from college, with little experience in economic issues.
C. Many marry their high school sweetheart and are already in the family way by the time of their first deploymentthe family unit has not really become a cohesive unit and this would only compound the lack of nurturing that might have been missing while growing up.
D. While one spouse is away at war, the other is left to fend for the family with limited financial means and so there becomes a disparity in maturityone having to learn to survive on the battle field, the other in the dog-eat-dog real live civilian world.
E. When the family is rejoined they face the need to re-learn communication skills, intimacy, and understanding, which lacks the adrenaline rush associated with combat survival. While going through transitioning counseling, which is becoming mandatory in most military units, it can become too much too fast to absorb and this can often lead to dependency on alcohol or drugs.
F. It may be decision-time for some to re-enlist or leave the service for civilian life. This compounds the situation even further as the economic conditions on the outside severely limit the job choices for many. If the soldier chooses re-enlistment, redeployment is surely on the horizon; if the choice is to leave the military, the rat-race of the economy becomes the new challenge, all the while trying to re-integrate to family life.
G. The stigma that comes from admitting to the need for mental counseling keeps many from seeking continued follow-up help once outside the parameter of the military duty station, creating a sense of abandonment in many soldiers leading to marital problems which often end in divorce.
H. Facing loneliness and post traumatic stress disorder, which afflicts as many as 30% of those leaving the military, the soldier comes face to face with the possibility of suicide.

And what about those who didnt face combat, their suicide figures are included in the increasing numbers we are seeing. On Monday we will conclude on where this all leads in the hope of better understanding the alarming phenomenon of military suicide.