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Air Force suicide rate highest in 17 years

Air Force suicides hit a 17-year high in 2010, and officials say relationship problems remain the No. 1 reason airmen decide to end their lives.

Through Tuesday, 54 active-duty airmen have committed suicide — 13 more than last year — and the highest rate since 1993.

The alarming news comes after nearly two years of efforts within the Defense Department to lower suicide numbers.

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The other services are reporting slightly lower numbers among active-duty troops. In the Army, there have been 144 confirmed or suspected suicides among active-duty soldiers, compared with 162 in 2009. The Navy says its suicide rate dropped from 46 in 2009 to 33 this year, and the Marine Corps say its numbers fell from 52 last year to 46 so far in 2010.

Air Force leaders said that, in addition to relationship problems, other risk factors they evaluate include history of mental health issues, alcohol in system at time of death, financial problems and whether an airman was deployed in the past year.

“Suicide prevention remains a top priority of Air Force leadership, and our leaders at all levels are fully engaged in the prevention effort,” said Maj. Michael McCarthy, Air Force Suicide Prevention Program manager, in an e-mail to Stars and Stripes.

The service’s research has found that deployment appears to be one of the lowest risk factors, according to Donna Tinsley, a spokeswoman with the Air Force surgeon general’s office.

That research seems to be in line with recent Army findings: For 2010, a majority of active-duty soldiers who killed themselves had either zero or only one previous deployment, despite soldiers typically heading to the combat zones every other year.

The Air Force numbers show that leaders must remain vigilant despite recent success in curbing suicides among airmen, officials said.

Last spring, a study funded by the National Institute of Mental Health found the Air Force’s suicide prevention program had, for the most part, been effective in lowering the suicide rate among the service’s 325,000-plus active-duty ranks. The study’s authors, however, cautioned that the program’s success was contingent on ongoing monitoring and implementation efforts and “cannot be maintained by ‘inherent momentum.’”

Air Force officials say they believe the service’s suicide prevention efforts continue to have a positive impact on airmen’s quality of life, but they are also rolling out additional programs to help airmen in need. Supervisors, for example, are starting to receive training on how to directly intervene with airmen at highest risk for suicide, officials said.

In addition to tracking suicide numbers, the DOD this year ordered the services to start recording suicide attempts.

According to Marine Corps guidance, a suicide attempt is defined as “a self-inflicted, potentially injurious behavior with a non-fatal outcome for which there is evidence … of intent to die.” A spokeswoman at the Air Force surgeon general’s office said “resulting hospitalization is the definition used to validate the attempts.”

This year, 197 airmen have survived suicide attempts, while the Marine Corps has reported 165 attempts. The Navy said 60 sailors have attempted suicide.

Army numbers were not available.

svanj@estripes.osd.mil

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