AIF Blog

Army Suicide Rates Inch Down, but Off-Duty Soldiers are Worse off

Jan 19, 2012

The active-duty soldier suicide rate has dropped slightly according to the Department of Defense and reported yesterday on However, much more attention is needed for Guard and Reserve soldiers. The article points out that: "In 2010, the number of suicides increased by 59, from 242 to 301, an increase of 24.4 percent. Almost twice as many guardsmen and reservists committed suicide — 145 in 2010, 80 in 2009 — as the year before."

Martin E.P. Seligman spoke at Aspen ideas about his work with the Army and suicide prevention. He is the Zellerbach Family professor of psychology and director of the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania, where he focuses on positive psychology, learned helplessness, depression, ethno-political conflict, and optimism. He is a best-selling author of several books including, most recently, Flourish.

Watch this video of Seligman's talk where he describes the project, which he began with General George W. Casey, to train soldiers in positive psychology and resilience. (An except of the transcript is below the video player.)


Transcript Excerpt: Martin E.P. Seligman talking at Aspen Ideas about his recent book, Flourishing.

    "So that’s where we were about three years ago when George Casey, the chief of staff of the United States Army invited me to the Pentagon and I’ll relate the story of what happened.
     He said, “Dr. Seligman, suicide, post-traumatic stress disorder, divorce, substance abuse.  What does positive psychology say about that?”  I said, “Sir, the reaction of human beings to extreme adversity like combat is bell-shaped.  On the left hand side of the curve, you have people who fall apart.  I recommend that you continue to devote $5 billion to $10 billion a year treating such people, but the Army, sir, is not a hospital.  The Army is about producing fitness. 
     What you should know about reaction to adversity across the human spectrum, in the great middle of the bell are people who are resilient.  What resilience means operationally, these are people who go through a hard time, but three months later are back where they were before on psychological and physical measures. 
     On the extreme right hand side of the curve is post-traumatic growth.  People of whom [inaudible] said if it doesn’t kill me, it makes me stronger.  These are people who go through often a terrible time in combat, but a year later by our psychological measures and physical measures are stronger than they were a year ago. 
     So my recommendation is that you move the entire distribution toward resilience and growth whereupon two things happen,” one of which was amazing.  General Casey said, “I’ve decided to create an Army that is just as psychologically fit as physically fit.” 
     He ordered, unlike what all of us do in which we try to cajole our colleagues into doing things, he ordered that from that day forward, positive psychology and resilience would be measured and taught throughout the 1.1 million person United States Army and allocated $115 million to it.
     Then he said, “I wanna tell you about your role, Dr. Seligman.  The general staff has read your stuff on schools.  We find that you teach teachers these techniques and then you measure the students and you find a couple of years later there’s less anxiety and depression.  Well that’s the Army model.”  I said, “It is?”  He said, “Yeah.  We have 40,000 teachers in the Army.”  I said, “You do?”  l
     He said, “Yeah.  The drill sergeants.  So your job, Dr. Seligman, will be to help us teach all 40,000 drill sergeants these techniques and they will teach them to the Army.”  So now, every month 180 drill sergeants come to the University of Pennsylvania.  My faculty teaches them these techniques.
     I have to say that it’s nice to meet generals, but meeting these kids, they’re typically 38 year old Black and Hispanic kids who fought their way up out of the ghetto, have served 3 or 4 tours, are war heroes and I’ve gone to faculty – I was telling Joe before – I’ve gone to faculty meetings for 40 years.  I’ve never met a faculty member I would trust my life to.  I’ve met dozens of people I would now trust my life to.
     But anyway, they’ve been trained and we’re now measuring in the entire 1.1 million Army how this is doing and I think I can give you the first presentation of any data we’ve been allowed to do. 
     So comprehensive soldier fitness has three elements.  The first element in trying to create a psychologically fit Army is to measure psychological fitness.  So every soldier, all 1.1 million of them, have taken 105 item test called the GAT, which measures emotional, social, family and spiritual fitness.
     Then we ask the question, “What does this predict?”  So this slide, which I just got from General Cornum, my closest collaborator – there are about 1,200 full colonels and there are about 33 of them are promoted to Brigadier General.  So, the question is could we predict who would be promoted to Brigadier General and the answer is massively yes.  You can look at some of the dimensions that predict it.
     In Korea, this is the very first data.  I think this is the first time I’ve ever shown it.  We’re starting to get the data on suicide.  So starting last year, we trained the drill sergeants in Korea in the techniques I’ve talked about.  The drill sergeants have gradually been training the entire Army force in Korea.  Korea measures the actual suicides, suicidal gestures and suicidal ideation in the whole force.
     What this slide basically shows you is those soldiers who have gotten the training, account for only about 15 percent of the suicidal material.  So what we’ve got here is something that looks like the first actual prevention of the suicidal spectrum I’ve seen.
     One other thing I should mention and I can’t show you the data at this point.  It hasn’t been cleared, but I can tell you about it.  I’ve worked in the field of suicide my whole life.  It is a mess.  The reason it’s a mess is no one has ever had a large number of actual suicides, all of whom took the same test before they killed themselves.
     Well we had 84 suicides in the Army last year, all of whom had taken the test we created.  In looking at the 84 suicides versus 750,000 controls, there’s 1 thing that stands out as a robust predictor of suicide and it’s the lack of meaning in life, lack of purpose in what they’re doing in the Army."

The full transcript can be found on the right of the video player on this page.