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Veteran suicide rate outpaces war casualties

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ATLANTA, GA (RNN) - Long after soldiers have put down their guns in the fight on foreign soil, they often find themselves fighting another war altogether - the battle in their own minds.

A recently released yearlong review by a Department of Defense task force challenged with studying military suicides shows more than 1,100 members of the armed forces took their own lives between 2005 and 2009 - more than the number of soldiers killed in Afghanistan since 2001.

That's one suicide every 36 hours.

"Military cultural norms, while beneficial for survival and mission accomplishment on a battlefield, can sometimes stifle responsible help-seeking behavior; the effect is a less fit force more vulnerable to suicide," the task force concluded in its report.

Information on the Department of Defense website shows the military suicide rate has increased steadily over the past five years, exceeding the national average of 11.1 suicides per 100,000 people. The military averaged 12.5 suicides per 100,000 people.

To get a handle on the problem, the Army has awarded a $17 million grant to Florida State University and the Denver VA Medical Center to create the Military Suicide Research Consortium.

The consortium, lead by Dr. Thomas Joiner of Florida State and Dr. Peter Guiterrez, a clinical and research psychologist at the Denver VA Medical Center, will employ research to help identify those at risk for suicide and ultimately prevent unnecessary deaths.

"These suicides have deeply affected the military leadership, and they are desperate to do something about it," Joiner said. "For many in the military, they never knew the misery of suicide, and now they do. They are agonizing over this."

The research is the first of its kind to integrate Department of Defense and civilian efforts to combat suicide.

"Assessing those at risk for suicide has been the focus of extensive research in the civilian sector. However, very little is currently known about how relevant existing tools are when applied to the military," Gutierrez said. "This consortium will allow us to determine how best to screen and assess personnel, develop effective interventions and ultimately to reduce suicides."

The issue is also the focus of the Atlanta, GA-based Carter Center forum, "After the War: Mental Health and a Veteran's Journey Home." Held Tuesday and broadcast on the web, the forum addressed the challenges of soldiers returning from war, particularly the challenges of reservists.

"What we want to do is take this symposium beyond a feel-good information meeting to one that leads to action steps, one that leads to solutions where people can go home and influence their organization to change policies and practices," said Dr. Thomas Bornemann, head of the Carter Center's Mental Health Program.

"Nobody goes to war and comes back unaffected. They have extraordinary exposure to difficult challenges," Bornemann said. "What we're concerned about is, when those effects persist to the point where people need to receive services, that the appropriate services are made available to people and their families."

According to Dr. Sonja Batten, Deputy Director of the VA's Defense Centers of Excellence for Psychological Health and Traumatic Brain Injury, support systems are crucial to the soldier returning from war, but support takes on a different form for reservists.

"For the active duty service members, they're more likely to have those support systems built into their lives. They live on base. People understand what they're going through," Batten said during the forum. "That's not always the case for the active duty reserves. They may not have the people in their environment who can provide support, understand what they've been through, ask the right questions, know which questions not to ask."

Batten says the VA is reaching out to veterans who may need mental health care through multiple outlets, including offering five years of free health care from the date of discharge for any condition related to their service in Iraq or Afghanistan.

"People may not be ready, the moment they get off the plane, to recognize they have a problem," she said. "Usually when people get home, the first thing they want to do is get home to their family. So we work with our reserve units to have multiple outreaches. If it takes a year or two years or three years, we're there."

Veterans Affairs has also set up a free suicide hotline, 1-800-273-TALK (8255), where soldiers seeking help can be connected with trained counselors. Batten says so far the hotline has been credited with 11,000 direct rescues of someone on the line considering suicide.

If voice-to-voice is not private enough for a soldier, they can chat with a trained responder at http://suicidepreventionlifeline.org/Veterans.

"People can ask those questions and talk about those scary thoughts they're having in a completely anonymous way," Batten said. "Every suicide is too many and there's so much more we can do."

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