US Army is short on mental health professionals as it tries to stem rising number of Army suicides.
The US Army is short as many as 300 substance-abuse counselors and 800 mental health professionals as it attempts to stem the rise of soldier suicides, which is expected to break new records again this year.
As of Monday, there were 140 confirmed suicides in 2009 among the active-duty Army and another 71 from the Reserve and National Guard, said Army Gen. Pete Chiarelli, the service's vice-chief of staff. This year will probably be worse than last year, in which 140 suicides were confirmed, he said. That would represent the fifth straight year suicides increased in the Army.
"This is horrible, and I do not want to downplay the significance of this in any way," said Chiarelli, noting that the rising number of suicides is probably the "toughest challenge" he's ever had to tackle.
The Marine Corps is seeing a similar trend: Last year it confirmed 42 suicides and has counted 42 already this year.
Too few mental health experts are available to address the problem – reflecting a shortage of such experts across the country, not just in the military.
[Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, accused of killing 13 soldiers at Fort Hood, Texas, and injuring 29 others, is an Army psychiatrist, and investigators are trying to determine if the lack of mental health counselors had any bearing on his continued employment by the Army despite warning signs about his behavior. Army officials would not comment on the matter Tuesday.]
One glimmer of hope: a new system to evaluate soldiers' mental fitness. The Army is now using an online tool that helps professionals assess the mental condition of a soldier, thereby maximizing the few professionals available to conduct such evaluations, Chiarelli said Tuesday at a Pentagon briefing. The Army was able to evaluate, at a medical center in Hawaii, everyone in a battalion returning from war. Some evaluations were face-to-face; others were completed online.