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Navy attempted suicide rate nearly 3 percent

Dec. 23, 2009 - 05:39PM   |   Last Updated: Dec. 23, 2009 - 05:39PM  |  
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Navy's attempted suicide rate was higher than that of the other services in 2008. The Navy has launched a suicide prevention campaign, which includes posters such as this one. (Navy)

Sailors attempted to commit suicide at rates significantly higher than the other services in 2008, according to a recent Defense Department-sponsored survey of service members.

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Sailors attempted to commit suicide at rates significantly higher than the other services in 2008, according to a recent Defense Department-sponsored survey of service members.

The Navy's attempted suicide rate — at 2.8 percent, or roughly 1 in every 35 sailors — was three times higher than in the previous survey, conducted in 2005.

By comparison, the attempted suicide rate in the Army was 2 percent, with the Marine Corps at 2.3 percent and the Air Force at 1.6 percent, according to the 2008 survey.

That was among many findings, which included broad, militarywide increases in illegal prescription drug use and "dangerous levels" of drinking, as service members have been subjected to the stress of war in recent years.

Combat deployment "is no doubt playing a part in the stress levels that we're seeing," said Jack Smith, acting deputy assistant secretary for clinical and program policy for the assistant defense secretary for health. "It's a challenging environment."

And Marines and soldiers, who are more likely to see combat than other service members, are showing higher rates of stress-related activities, Smith said.

But many of the survey's trends reaffirm known problems, or simply put numbers to ideas that previously had been anecdotal.

The 2008 Department of Defense Survey of Health-Related Behaviors Among Active-Duty Military Personnel included Coast Guardsmen for the first time. The survey of 28,546 service members included a mix of ages, genders, races and ranks. The results did not include troops who were deployed at the time of the survey.

Though report authors were quick to say that many unhealthy habits, such as smoking, have decreased significantly since they first began the survey in 1980, they noted that many have risen in recent years.

For example, the number of service members who have smoked in the past 30 days decreased from 51 percent in 1980 to 30 percent in 1998, but then increased to 34 percent in 2002 and was at 31 percent in 2008.

Illicit drug use, including prescription drugs such as muscle relaxants or painkillers, was at 28 percent in 1980, dropped to 3 percent in 2002 and rose to 12 percent in 2008.

This may be because so many service members have been injured and have had a hard time going off their medications — either because they are still in pain or because they have become addicted. Illegal drug use not including prescription medications was at 2 percent in 2008.

"I think that we're still trying to determine the meaning of this," Smith said. "It's the first time we've drilled down on that as a major issue."

The questionnaire has always asked about illegal prescription use, but the 2008 survey spelled it out in greater detail. Smith said recent studies show teenagers easily get prescription medications illegally, and that "people are known to swap and share" drugs.

Stress and abuse

Nearly one-third of service members have smoked in the past 30 days, 18 percent reported high family stress, 23 percent reported stress from being away from their families, and 27 percent reported high levels of stress at work.

About 42 percent of service members reported physical or sexual abuse, and 8 percent said they had been abused since joining the military.

"I think certainly it's high," Smith said. "I think we're disturbed by those results."

However, he said a substantial number of people in the military who said they have been sexually assaulted said it happened before they joined the services.

A high number of women — almost 50 percent of Marines and sailors, and 43 percent of soldiers — reported feeling stressed simply because they are women in the military.

"I think the survey results speak for themselves," said Robert Bray, the principle investigator for the study. "Being one of a minority in a largely male force — particularly in a deployed force — is something we need to be aware of and give some attention to."

Bray said some of the stress may come from being a single mother or having children at home during a deployment.

The survey also asked screening questions meant to determine whether a service member should be checked for post-traumatic stress disorder.

Service members go through this screening process when they return home from combat deployments, but the survey included troops who haven't deployed, as well.

Of those surveyed, 11 percent met screening criteria for further evaluation for PTSD, and 14 percent met criteria for anxiety disorders. In addition, 5 percent "seriously considered" suicide in the past year.

About 1 in 5 service members reported being exposed to a blast, and 8 percent of soldiers said they had memory loss after the blast.

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