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National study shows military suicide rates climbing; Utah no exception

Published: Sunday, March 30 2014 3:35 p.m. MDT

Army veteran Julio Bernal from Takoma Park, Md., works with others from Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA) to place 1,892 flags representing veteran and service members who have died by suicide to date in 2014 on the National Mall in Washington, Thursday, March 27, 2014.

Charles Dharapak, Associated Press

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SALT LAKE CITY — A large study of nearly 1 million soldiers shows the Army suicide rate surpassed the civilian suicide rate in 2008 and continues to rise.

And Utah is no stranger to military suicide.

Of the 18 Utah soldiers who died in 2013 and were recognized by the state Legislature earlier this year, at least 13 are confirmed suicides, according to Rep. Ryan Wilcox, R-Ogden.

"Would I say that (suicide) attempts have gone up? Absolutely," said Dr. Scott Hill, chief of mental health for the VA Salt Lake City Health Care System.

Better tracking could contribute to the rising numbers, Hill said, but the rates are climbing regardless. Ten veterans have committed suicide since Oct. 1, 2013, in Utah, southeastern Idaho and eastern Nevada, he said. The hotline for veterans in crisis received 283 calls from the same area during the same time frame.

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs estimates 22 veterans commit suicide each day. That number is one per day for active-duty soldiers, according to the nonprofit Stop Soldier Suicide.

Three papers related to the National Institute of Mental Health study were published at the beginning of March. The study focused on soldiers who served in the Iraq and Afghanistan war and those who weren’t deployed.

From 2004 to 2009, the rates doubled to more than 30 suicide deaths per 100,000 individuals deployed. For those who weren’t deployed, the rates tripled to between 25 and 30 suicide deaths per 100,000 people.

The report debunks the idea that combat stress of the two long wars has caused the surge in suicide rates. The study also says relaxed qualifications for new soldiers also don't explain the increase.

The average civilian rate for similar ages and demographics, according to the study, remained about 19 for every 100,000.

The research revealed about a quarter of Army soldiers have at least one psychiatric disorder. About one-third of suicide attempts were related to mental disorders developed before enlisting, meaning more people with mental health problems are joining the armed forces.

Hill said some of the traditional warning signs aren't there like they used to be.

"A lot of these men and women are denying suicidality right up until the point where they kill themselves … saying, 'I’m fine, I’m fine, I’m fine, I'm fine,'" Hill said.

Typical warning signs including an increase in self-destructive or high-risk behaviors, changes in stressors such as a breakup or loss of a job, isolation, suddenly finding peace after a long period of sadness, and preoccupation with dying.

"One of the misnomers is that if people are talking about killing themselves, they're not going to do it," Hill said. "(It's) quite the contrary. People should pay attention."

Struggling veterans and their families can call the Veterans Crisis Line for help at 800-273-8255.

Utah veterans have access to treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder and general mental health, marriage counseling, vocational counseling, alternative health care, 24-hour emergency room crisis teams, recovery programs and even evidence-based therapies over the computer for those in rural or remote areas, Hill said.

Now that scientific data is emerging after years of research, the focus is going to be on improving suicide prevention efforts, according to Dr. Craig Bryan, executive director of the National Center for Veteran Studies. The next couple years should bring a shift to programs with demonstrated scientific success, Bryan said.

A U.S. senator and Iraq veteran introduced a bill Thursday aiming to prevent military suicide.

The bill would give veterans 15 years to receive treatment for mental health issues. They currently have five years after active duty to receive care without paying copays. The legislation also looks to improve quality of care.

Hill said a delayed form of PTSD is common, and combat-related suicide attempts can happen years later. He encourages veterans to come in for help as soon as they are discharged.

Also Thursday, military veterans gathered at the National Mall in Washington, D.C., and placed more than 1,800 flags to symbolize the service members and veterans who have committed suicide so far in 2014.

"This is an epidemic, and we're tracking it very closely," Hill said.

Email: madbrown@deseretnews.com, Twitter: Madeleine6

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