Adm. Mullen anticipates a record year for suicides

The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen, on Tuesday predicted that the Army will see a record number of suicides this year.

“The early statistics this year in the Army indicate that there are going to be more suicides this year than last, and last year was a record year,” Mullen said at a breakfast sponsored by The Hill.

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“The suicide rate is exceptionally high,” Mullen said, adding that the rate is up in all the military services, not just the Army. While he said there is no “analytic data” yet pointing to an “overwhelming correlation” between the suicide rate and the stress on the military forces — stress exacerbated by multiple deployments to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — he “just can’t believe that it is not very much related.”

In the Army alone, there were 133 suicides in 2008; six months into 2009, the Army is contending with 64 confirmed suicides. Fort Campbell, Ky., alone has had 11 suicides this year, making it the Army’s installation dealing with the most suicides. Fort Campbell is the home of the 101st Airborne Division and has roughly 20,000 troops stationed there.

Mullen said the military faced a “severe” shortage in mental health professionals and that Pentagon leaders are pressing to fill those gaps.

“We have hired hundreds and hundreds and hundreds [of mental health professionals],” Mullen said. “No matter how many we hire, we are going to be short here.” But Mullen stressed that Pentagon leaders are looking at a number of incentives, including paying for the appropriate education, to boost the number of mental health professionals.

Another avenue is tapping more into the “pro bono world” to get support for mental health issues in the military, Mullen said.

“We need to get to a point where everyone is screened by a competent mental health professional,” he added. That can also go a long way, Mullen said, toward removing the stigma that many in the military feel about seeking help from mental health professionals.

Mullen said he is concerned that pressures on the federal budget could affect programs that deal with the well-being of military members and their families.

“As the budget pressure increases in our town, I worry a great deal about the pressure affecting those programs, many of which are relatively new,” he said. “Those are the first programs that fall when the pressure comes.”