(Photo: Reuters/Bob Strong)
The alarming number of U.S. Army suicides, which has hit a rate of one a day, has been attributed to a variety of issues, but a primary reason seems to be a breakdown of relationships, according to an Army mental health expert. However, a former Army chaplain believes soldiers having a poor spiritual foundation may also be a factor.
The Pentagon released findings that showed that as of June 3, active-duty suicides for 2012 had reached 154, while combat deaths so far this year were 139 U.S. casualties in Afghanistan in and one in Iraq. The suicide rates are the highest since the U.S. began its military operations in Afghanistan in 2001.
Friar Peter Sousa, a recently retired U.S. Army Reserves chaplain who has served military men and women part-time for 26 years, shared in a phone interview with The Christian Post that young people in the military, much like young people in civilian life, are less religious than generations before them, which might be a contributing factor to the way they handle certain issues.
"I am speaking from experiences in my perspective, but I do believe that the young people coming into the military today do not have the firm foundation in religious belief that previous generations had. More and more soldiers are saying they have no religious preference," Sousa shared.
"It is very much a spiritual issue, and the Army is aware of this. They have contacted chaplaincies to help our soldiers. They can't promote a specific religion, but they can promote what they call 'spiritual fitness' or 'spiritual well being.'"
He added, "Young people today are less prepared and society has extended their adolescence. They are not maybe really mature until their mid 20s. Fifty years ago, people were at that maturity level at 18. They may not have the same coping skills. As young people come in, an awful lot is expected of them.
"Some of the young soldiers have been at two or three different bases, have been deployed halfway across the world, and have had to go through a lot of hard training – besides the combat aspect. Compared to the civilian sector, young people in the military have had to deal with a lot more."
When asked about some of the main reasons why Army men and women might make the decision to take their lives, the friar suggested he has found, in his experience, that the breakdown of relationships with loved ones back home are often a reason.
"Young people today deal with a lot of broken relationships. That's a key factor for many suicides. A number of soldiers have come to me saying that their wife and their girlfriend have moved in with somebody else and they have cleaned their bank accounts. And the soldiers feel totally helpless, being so far away," Sousa said.
Acknowledging that many factors have driven soldiers to take their lives, Sousa insisted that "it has often been a failed relationship that broke the camel's back."
Bruce Shahbaz, a civilian serving on the Army's suicide prevention unit, the Risk Reduction Task Force, told The Christian Post that he has also found that broken relationships were a key factor in soldiers' suicides.
"Suicide is a very complex issue. But I think what you are seeing is the stress that the Army has been under for the past 10 years of persistent conflict. We're starting to see the effects of the repeated deployment and reintegration cycle and the stress that takes on individuals and families as one of the factors that influences suicides. There is no single cause for suicides, but the heart of it is related to those stresses," explained Shahbaz.
"Approximately 50 percent of our suicides last year had as a stressor relationship failures. Those are a stressor, but it is only one of the issues, because there were also many cases where there were failed relationships but suicides did not occur," he continued.
Shahbaz said that physical health problems, law enforcement problems and traumatic brain injuries are also influential factors in suicides, although he noted that it is rare that only one of these is enough to push someone to take their own life – it is often a combination of these factors.
The Risk Reduction Task Force member noted that it is very important to look for changes in behavior related to those kinds of stressors that may indicate a soldier is in need of help.
"We believe that changes in behavior are the key issues to observe. For example, you have a soldier who is very outgoing, who all of a sudden stops going out with friends, that should be an indicator. It's not essentially someone who is isolated, but it's that sudden change in behavior," Shahbaz shared.
The Army has set up a system related to the deployment cycle called the "Five touch points," he noted, explaining, "Five times before, during and after employment, where the soldier sees a medial professional where their overall wellness is assessed and specific questions about their psychological wellness are asked."
"We're doing that with every single soldier to reduce the stigma associated with seeking behavioral health help. We're making everybody do it to reduce the stigma. If we're not singling out an individual person, we believe that is going to help encourage soldiers to be more honest, open and tell their supervisors when they are having an issue," Shahbaz added.
Col. George Glaze, Deputy Director of Health Promotion at the Risk Reduction Task Force where Shahbaz works, told CP that the issue of military suicides needs to be a national discussion, as well as a service and Army discussion.
"Seeking help is a good thing, seeking help works and help is ready to be provided," he said.
Shahbaz urged soldiers to call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, 1-800-273-8255, which is a confidential health line.
"You can call anywhere in the nation, you can call oversees, you can even call from Afghanistan and there are counselors available who can understand and help direct and arrange the appropriate level of medical care," Shahbaz explained.