Did UPI Reporting Help Cut Suicides Among U.S. Soldiers in Iraq?

By: E&P Staff UPI reports today that the number of suicides by soldiers serving in Operation Iraqi Freedom dropped last year by at least half, from 24 in 2003 to just nine in 2004, with three other deaths last year still under investigation. Part of the reason for this welcome trend might very well rest with some of UPI's reporting in the past.

Asked why the suicide rate fell so much, Army spokeswoman Martha Rudd told UPI: "It's really not possible to tell. We think some of the efforts we've made over there are paying off, but also that the news coverage of the issue last year really elevated the level of attention paid to this." She said the military's efforts included putting mental-health workers closer to troops, training soldiers to spot those at risk for suicide, and installing a countrywide coordinator to deal with combat stress.

UPI had taken the lead in 2003 (as E&P noted at the time) in reporting on the troubling surge in suicides among soldiers in Iraq or who had served in Iraq.

But there's another possibility, also tied to UPI reporting.

Last year the Army largely quit using an anti-malaria drug called Lariam in Iraq that has been linked to depression, hallucinations, psychosis, and rare reports of suicide. It was widely prescribed in Iraq in 2003 and again, UPI had highlighted the potential problems.

Eleven of the 24 confirmed suicides in Iraq in 2003 were by soldiers in units where the drug, known generically as mefloquine, was prescribed to at least some soldiers, UPI says.

The Pentagon announced last February that it is investigating whether there is a link between the drug and soldier suicides. But it defended Lariam as highly effective and safe for soldiers to take. The Army said the suicides were linked to "failed personal relationships, financial crises, legal difficulties and mental problems like depression and psychosis" -- the same factors that trigger suicide in the general public.


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