WASHINGTON ó As many as 121 U.S. soldiers likely committed suicide in 2007, a record number if confirmed, according to Army statistics released on Thursday.
The Army reported 89 suicides and 32 suspected cases among active-duty soldiers in 2007. If the 32 cases are confirmed, the 121 suicides would be a nearly 20 per cent increase over 2006, when 102 soldiers committed suicide.
Army officials said relationship problems were the main cause of suicides among soldiers, but those problems were increasing due to repeated long deployments as the force is strained by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"I think that it is a marker of the stress on the force," Army psychiatrist Col. Elspeth Ritchie said.
"Families are getting tired," Col. Ritchie told a news conference at the Pentagon. "Therefore, sometimes they're more irritable, sometimes they don't take care of each other the way they should, are not as nurturing as they should be."
The number of suicides has risen in four of the past five years for which complete data is available and the 2006 figure was the highest since 1991.
The number of soldiers attempting suicide or inflicting injuries on themselves has also jumped in recent years.
That figure rose from about 350 in 2002 to around 2,100 in 2007, although Col. Ritchie said the large jump partly reflects better recordkeeping.
She said the Army was increasing its efforts to help soldiers cope with relationship problems, identify possible suicidal tendencies in their comrades and seek help if they were having suicidal thoughts.
"We're trying to decrease stigma, but that is not an easy thing to do at all," Col. Ritchie said. "We have been perturbed by the rise, despite all of our efforts."
In 2006, however, the Army rate rose to 17.5 per 100,000 -- the highest since the Army began tracking the rate in 1980.