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Suicide Rates on the Rise
in U.S. Air Force

Suicide Rates on the Rise
in U.S. Air Force

by Kevin Caruso

July 15, 2004

The U.S. Air Force is experiencing a rise in its suicide rate.

Twenty-six Air Force members have died by suicide so far this year, compared with 37 for all of 2003.

The current annual suicide rate for the Air Force is 13 suicides per 100,000 personnel. In 2003, the rate was 10.2 per 100,000. (The suicide rate for the entire U.S. population ranges between 11 and 12 per 100,000.)

The reason for the increase is not known.

None of the suicides involved personnel who were deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan or who returned from those countries.

"The Air Force is distressed at its high suicide rate, and we wish there was a magic solution, but there isn't," said Lt. Col. Rick Campise, who manages the Air Force's suicide prevention program. "We're used to seeing the rate dropping, so having it go up is not very pleasing to us."

The Air Force suicide prevention program started in 1996 when a group of 75 military and civilian mental health specialists began collaborating on 11 suicide prevention initiatives to be implemented by the Air Force.

The suicide prevention program resulted in a decline in the suicide rate by 38 percent through 2003. "It's really unique. There's no program like it; so the 2004 rates are causing us great distress," said Campise. "So, the Air Force is getting back to the roots of its 11 initiatives. We don't know which of those actually accounted for the reduction from 1997 to 2003, but we want to get back on track. The literature is full of successful programs that are no longer effective because either the leadership has moved on or the community felt that the problem was solved."

One important revision that has already been implemented will improve the privacy of personnel who seek help. "[However,] confidentiality continues to be seen as a double-edged sword," said Campise. "We have to maintain a balance between a patient's privacy and a commander's need for information that allows [him or her to] make decisions that ensure the safety of the Airman and the success of the mission."

Additionally, improvements in the review of health records and the communication among commanders and support agencies are being put into effect. Before any active-duty personnel are transferred to a new base, mental-health staff members will be required to thoroughly examine all mental-health records to determine if additional resources will be needed at the destination base.

And two important informational booklets have been distributed that should help improve the management of suicidal individuals as well as improve communication between commanders and the mental-health staff. The names of the booklets are "Air Force Guide for Managing Suicidal Behavior" and "the Leader's Guide for Managing Personnel in Distress." In addition to the booklets, a video titled "Communicating with Commanders" was distributed.

Also, General John Jumper, the Air Force Chief of Staff, has issued several directives aimed at reducing the suicide rate.

It should be noted that although the suicide rate is on the rise in the Air Force, the overall rate is about the same as the national average.

The Air Force takes their suicide prevention program very seriously and is working diligently to keep the suicide rate as low as possible.

Each suicide is a very sad occurrence and represents an enormous loss to family members and to the Air Force. I am encouraged, however, that the Air Force continues to show great concern about suicide prevention and awareness, and, more importantly, is taking every action possible to improve their suicide prevention program, which already has been recognized as an excellent program.

Indeed, the president's New Freedom Commission on Mental Health released a report in 2003 that called the Air Force's Suicide Prevention Program a "model program."

If you or someone you know is suicidal, please go to the Home Page of this website for immediate help.

Thank you.

I love you.

Take care,

Kevin Caruso

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