Yup, the anti war spin today are in the headlines suggesting a huge increase in the rate of suicides among US soldiers.

Here is how the normally non partisan Washington Post phrases it’s headline:

War Stress Pushing Army Suicides Higher


The Associated Press
Thursday, August 16, 2007; 7:27 PMWASHINGTON — Repeated and ever-longer war-zone tours are putting increasing pressure on military families, the Army said Thursday, helping push soldier suicides to a record rate.

There were 99 Army suicides last year _ nearly half of them soldiers who hadn’t reached their 25th birthdays, about a third of them serving in Iraq or Afghanistan….


More on washingtonpost.com

Suicide Rate in Army Rising

Suicide Rate Among Soldiers Shows Increase,

Report SaysArmy Suicides Highest in 26 Years

Since few read beyond the headlines (and the networks tend to mainly report the headlines) this will be interpreted as another reason for the US to pull out of Iraq, and will be politicized by those running for president as a failure of the Bush adminstration to care for it’s soldiers.

Despite the headlines, the Army must be doing something right, because the rate of suicide is actually lower–yes, I said lower–than that of a comparable civilian population.Yes, you heard me right, I said the suicide rate is lower in the Army than in a similar civilian population.

I know the headlines suggest otherwise, but that is because they are comparing the suicide rate in the US Army (17 per 100 000 population), as compared to the suicide rate of all civilians of all age groups (rate 11.5 per 100 000 population).

The dirty little secret is that men succeed in suicide a lot more than women, so by comparing apples (young men) to organges (adding women to the statistics) you can make the Army look bad.
Here is a pdf file of 2005 suicide statistics.

Here are a few details that are mentioned by the reports, but in a way that you might overlook them, especially if you are like most people and only read the top of the story.
One, the suicide rate in the Army is 17, but in young civilian men is 20.5.

Two:Read paragraph 2 of the Washington Post story I quoted. The article admits that two thirds of the suicides have not served in Iraq or Afghanistan, meaning that these suicides were not related to the war.
Three: the huge statistical “jump” is numerically small: an increase of 11 deaths in the entire US Army:

The report said there were 99 confirmed suicides among active duty soldiers in 2006, compared to 88 in 2005…

The 99 suicides in 2006 included 28 soldiers deployed to either Iraq and Afghanistan and 71 soldiers who weren’t,

In summary, the story is a real one, but it is being spun and exaggerated to provide negative spin at a time when much of the war news coming from Iraq is becoming more positive.

Actually, given the repeated deployments of young men who are separated from families and friends at a vulnerable age, I think the suicide rate is actually lower than expected.

And the reason just might be the US Armys program of suicide prevention. LINK including suicide prevention training for officers and soldiers so that they are aware of signs of depression that might lead to suicide. Manual HERE.

And the story that is overlooked in the headlines is not that the Army is indeed worried about the problem of depression and suicide, and is trying to address the problem “in a timely manner”.

One cannot just compare suicide statistics during a war with statistics since 1980, where the US Army was not actively fighting in large numbers. (Yes, Gulf War I had many soldiers sitting in the desert, but the length of actual combat was short).

A more realistic story would require a comparison to the suicide rate of soldiers in 1944 or 1951 or 1971, but such figures are not available.

Finally, one really worrysome statistic is one the reports overlooked: The fact that women soldiers have twice the rate of suicide deaths than their civilian counterparts.

Again, a look at the PDF will show that civilian women’s suicide rate is quite small, but the rate of attempted suicide is much higher than men,

Suicide attempts requiring hospitalization at age 20-29 is 116 women vs 84 for men, and probably higher if you include attempts that don’t go to the hospital. In constrast, death from suicide in young women is only 3.7 vs 20.5 for men.

The reason is because men tend to use more lethal methods such as firearms versus pills or cutting their wrists in women.
Is there a relationship between “GI JILL” being able to use a firearm and her ability to use a fire arm to shoot herself? Or is the rate so much higher because women don’t tolerate the stress of war as well as men? Or is it because women have more family stresses, or are more emotionally isolated in “mixed” units?

Just something else to put things into perspective: The suicide rate of physician is 19 per 100,000


Nancy Reyes is a retired physician living in the Philippines. Her website is Finest Kind Clinic and Fishmarket.

She writes medical essays at HeyDocXanga Blog 

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