A third of military personnel who committed suicide last year had told at least one person they planned to take their own lives, a newly released Defense Department report says.
Nearly half went to see medical personnel, behavioral health specialists, chaplains or other service providers sometime in the 90 days before they died, according to the 2010 Department of Defense Suicide Event Report.
That doesn't necessarily reflect a failure in the Defense Department suicide prevention program, said Richard McKeon, chief of the Suicide Prevention Branch at the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
"It's not that some person blew it," McKeon said Thursday. But physical and behavior health care personnel, counselors and other providers need to monitor their programs and look for improvements, he said.
"(Providers) need to be aware of what those opportunities are, and need to be regularly evaluating their efforts on what is working or what is not," McKeon said.
The 250-page report released late Wednesday analyzes 295 confirmed or "strongly suspected" suicides that were reported last year, down from 309 the year before. Caucasian service members under age 25 and in the lower ranks were at the highest risk, the same as the year before.
The 2010 total includes active-duty, reserve and National Guard personnel. It reflects a slight downward revision from the 301 suicides the Defense Department reported in January, which included about 70 that were still under investigation.
The Defense Department has been coping with rising suicide numbers during its protracted wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Individual service branches have tracked suicides for years, and in 2008, the Defense Department began using a standard form for collecting information called the Department of Defense Suicide Event Report or DoDSER.
Among the findings from the 2010 reports were that 34 percent of those who took their own lives communicated their intentions to someone, most commonly to their spouse or a friend. In 2009, the figure was 28 percent.
About 46 percent had been seen at a military treatment facility sometime in the 90 days before death. The treatment services include physical and behavioral health, substance abuse, family advocacy and chaplains.
McKeon said those statistics don't indicate whether the spouses, friends or others acted on the information, and if they did, what action they took. Nor do they show whether service providers intervened or whether intervention would have been successful, he said.
"People are often uncomfortable talking about suicide" with someone who appears vulnerable, fearing they might actually give someone the idea, McKeon said. There is no evidence that discussing suicide makes it more likely, he said.
"It's important to ask about it," McKeon said. "Even mental health professionals have trouble asking about it."
All branches of the military have "gatekeeper" programs designed to educate everyone in suicide prevention, said McKeon, who served on a Defense Department task force on suicide prevention.
Fort Carson, Colo., uses the Army's Ask, Care, Escort program, or ACE. It teaches all soldiers to ask whether someone is contemplating suicide, show concern if they are and escort them to a superior officer or service provider.
"Ask directly: `Are you thinking of killing yourself?'" said Kim Henry, the substance abuse program manager at Fort Carson.
"It's a very direct question. Not, `Are you thinking of hurting yourself,' (but) `Are you thinking of killing yourself?'" she said.
Squad leaders, sergeants, company commanders and other first-line supervisors go through a more extensive, two-day intervention training, Henry said.
Fort Carson has reported one soldier suicide so far this year with three other possible suicides under investigation. Last year, the post reported seven suicides.
National Suicide Prevention Hotline: 800-273-8255.
Dan Elliott is available at http://www.twitter.com/DanElliottAP.