Marines see sharp increase in suicides
By MARK ABRAMSON | STARS AND STRIPES Published: October 9, 2009
Recently released figures show Marines are taking their own lives at alarmingly high rates, and deployments appear to be taking a toll.
Through September, the Marines have recorded 38 confirmed or suspected suicides in 2009. Should the pace continue through the end of the year, the Marines would be facing a 20 percent increase from 2008 figures. Suicides also rose 27 percent from 2007 to 2008.
Ten suspected suicides this year remain under investigation, but those are classified as suicides because there is strong evidence to suggest that those Marines took their own lives, said Navy Cmdr. Aaron Werbel, suicide prevention program manager for the Marine Corps.
And while a recent Marine Corps report indicates that fewer than 42 percent of Marines who have committed suicide since 2001 had a deployment history, 56 of the 80 Marines who have taken their lives in the last two years have been to the war zones. That 70 percent figure is higher than Army figures for 2008, during which 61 percent of those who committed suicide were either deployed or had a deployment history.
Marine officials said they could not pinpoint an exact cause for the increase.
But, Werbel said, "A significant contributing factor is the operational tempo."
Dan Reidenberg, a psychologist and executive director of Suicide Awareness Voices of Education, or SAVE, said he believes deployments are a factor in servicemembers’ suicides.
"I think current people (in the military) have been deployed multiple times and that is creating stress," Reidenberg said. "I think it is the constant ongoing battle within as well as the battle outside those men and women (in the military) are fighting."
SAVE, a nonprofit organization based in Bloomington, Minn., was created about 20 years ago to raise awareness about suicide and to help prevent it. Reidenberg spoke to 5,000 Marines about suicide prevention at a base in North Carolina in May, he said.
The Marines are taking aim at the problem with a new top-down program called NCO Suicide Prevention Training.
The program requires Marine leaders from every base to select three noncommissioned officers to attend weeklong suicide prevention training in Quantico, Va. Navy corpsmen and other Navy personnel assigned to the Corps are included in the training.
"NCOs are being trained to look out for changes in personality, distress, and changes in sleeping patterns [to spot possible signs that a person is suicidal]," Werbel said.
"We are telling NCOs, you have to know your Marines … so you can see changes in behavior."
Those enlisted leaders will then give three days of training to NCOs at the battalion level, who will in turn give a half-day of training to all other Marine NCOs.
Taking a page from the Army suicide prevent program, the Marine training includes a video presentation. In the videos, Marines who attempted suicide and family members of those who have committed suicide share their experiences.
Other parts of the program feature people acting out various situations.
"I think it can be very effective," Reidenberg said about the Marines program.
The program should have an impact, especially with the "very real" videos in this age of technology, he said. Reidenberg also praised the Marines’ top-down approach.
The Marines started to develop the suicide prevention program before this year’s figures came to light.
"The reason we started doing it is our numbers were higher for 2008 compared to 2007," said Bryan Driver, spokesman for the Personal and Family Readiness Division at the Marines Headquarters.
The Marines will have a pretty good idea if the program is working if the suicide rate drops, Reidenberg said.
"You can’t ever say for sure that it was the program, but you can definitely say there was an impact."
Like the Marine Corps suicide prevention program, the Army videos also highlight spotting signs that indicate a person may be suicidal and situations where a soldier may have to deal with a suicidal buddy.
It also trains some soldiers to be facilitators. Facilitators may not be qualified to train other soldiers in suicide prevention, but they would learn how to talk informally to other troops about the issue, said Army spokesman Wayne Hall.
"The real important thing here is to get people talking," Hall said about the Army’s program.
In addition to programs such as NCO Suicide Prevention training, the Marines — like the Army — are addressing the issue by trying to help troops get over the stigma of seeking help.
"We are really trying to bust through that stigma. This isn’t a career-ender," Werbel said.
"The career ender could be not getting help."