To combat rising suicide rates in the military, the Army’s set of “good ideas” isn’t good enough, it said.
What’s needed are scientifically proven prevention and screening methods, and to that end the Army announced it will devote $17 million over three years to a research consortium based at Fort Detrick.
The U.S. Army Medical Research and Materiel Command launched the Military Suicide Research Consortium on Wednesday in conjunction with researchers from Florida State University and the Denver Veterans Affairs Medical Center. The organizers will work with a pool of research teams around the world to identify gaps in knowledge and develop research proposals to help the military curb its growing problem, highlighted by a recent string of suicides at Fort Hood in Texas.
“Suicide represents the culmination of individual misery, and it agonizes families, the bereaved who are left behind in its wake,” said Thomas Joiner, a Florida State psychology professor. “Unfortunately we’ve seen a rise, an increase in our men and women in uniform, and this is a worrisome trend.”
Peter Gutierrez, a researcher at the Mental Illness Research, Education and Clinical Center in Denver, said suicide is a complex issue and needs a multifaceted solution. Working as a consortium will allow researchers to coordinate rather than duplicate each other’s efforts, as well as obtain funding faster than if they relied on the normal grant application process.
The Department of Defense and Department of the Army had spent only about $11 million over the past five years on suicide prevention research even as more and more money went to awareness campaigns and educational material, said Col. Carl Castro, director of MRMC’s Military Operational Medicine Research Program. The problem with that is the awareness and educational efforts are not proven effective. Castro’s organization will oversee the consortium.
“It may surprise you to discover that none of that training is evidence-based — it’s good ideas, experts thinking this is what we need to do, but we do not have any evidence that that training actually, in fact, prevents suicides,” Castro said.
Fort Detrick soldiers and civilians are required to attend suicide prevention training sessions each year, spokesman Chuck Gordon said. The training is designed higher up in the Army but administered through the chaplain’s office in conjunction with the human resources office. The sessions focus on larger Army statistics instead of localizing the issue of suicide.
Fortunately, suicide has not been a problem at Fort Detrick the way it has at other military installations, in part because the military community at Fort Detrick is so small, Gordon said.
“The smaller the unit, the more folks know each other and keep an eye on each other,” he said, likening it to a small classroom where the teacher can see everything everyone does. “But when you have lots of troops milling around, it’s easy to get lost in the crowd,” which may help explain the 18 suicides this year at Fort Hood, including four in one weekend.
“We know we’re not going to solve the suicide problem in the military with this three-year research consortium,” Castro said. “But what we hope to do at the end of this three years is to lay a very solid foundation on which other research can be built.”
The consortium will also build a searchable database of military suicidal behaviors. Policymakers will be able to request information to help guide their decisions, Gutierrez said, adding this could perhaps lead to funding for more prevention and screening research in the future.
“This consortium will represent a significant investment on the part of the Department of Defense and Department of Army to actually bring research — evidence-based approaches — to suicide prevention and suicide treatment and suicide screening and identification, to include postvention care for units and families and communities,” Castro said. “So this is really just the beginning in a major investment in these areas.”