Military Suicides Reached All-Time High in 2019; Impact of COVID-19 Remains Unclear

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(U.S. Air Force illustration/Kathryn R.C. Reaves)
(U.S. Air Force illustration/Kathryn R.C. Reaves)

The suicide rate among active-duty military personnel hit its highest in 2019 -- a slight uptick from the previous year that the Defense Department says is not “statistically significant” but represents 344 lives cut short.

On the heels of a report that suicides among U.S. military personnel are up 20% this year, Pentagon officials released suicide data for last year, showing that the suicide rate, 25.9 per 100,000 troops, reached the highest level since the Pentagon first began closely monitoring self-inflicted deaths in 2000.

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But the data also showed that after years of record high rates among reserve and National Guard personnel, suicides are declining, although the Guard rates remain significantly higher than the U.S. population.

Officials with the Defense Suicide Prevention Office refused to disclose the most up-to-date data for suicides this year, saying the second-quarter results -- for April through June -- will be released in the coming weeks. They have already posted the first-quarter data, which largely would have been unaffected by the pandemic.

But Army officials told the Associated Press this week that suicides among active-duty soldiers have increased 30% this year, and Air Force suicides remain consistent with last year's deaths, the service's highest year ever.

Service officials said the pandemic could be an added stressor leading to the rise.

"I can't say scientifically, but what I can say is - I can read a chart and a graph, and the numbers have gone up in behavioral health related issues," Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy told AP.

"COVID adds stress," Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Brown said earlier this month during the Air Force Association's annual conference, held virtually this year. "From a suicide perspective, we are on a path to be as bad as last year. And that's not just an Air Force problem, this is a national problem because COVID adds some additional stressors -- a fear of the unknown for certain folks."

According to the Associated Press report, the Army has had 114 deaths by suicide this year, up from 88 last year.

The Air Force had 98 suicides as of Sept. 15, steady with the same time last year.

The Navy has had a significant decline so far this year with fewer than half the total of last year: 34 as of late September, compared with 73 in total in 2019.

The Marine Corps did not respond to a request for its 2020 data.

Defense officials warned against looking at the raw numbers from year to year, saying they don't provide a complete picture of the suicide incidence rate in a fluctuating military population. They added it can take medical examiners months to confirm a death is a suicide, which influences the final figures, and it is for those reasons that they delay releasing the numbers until they can calculate the rates.

"What may look like an increasing or decreasing trend based on the count may not be statistically meaningful once we have all the data," said Karen Orvis, director of the Defense Suicide Prevention Office.

According to the DoD 2019 Annual Suicide Report, there were 344 suicides among active-duty personnel in 2019, up from 326 the year before, a rate of 25.9 per 100,000 service members. In 2018 and 2017, the rates were 24.9 per 100.000 and 22.1 per 100,000, respectively.

The 2019 rate is now the highest on record since the Defense Department began closely tracking suicides in 2001, but DoD officials said the measure this year does not represent a "statistically significant increase" from 2018.

The reserves and National Guard, however, have seen significant decreases. In 2019, the reserve components had 65 deaths, down from 81 in 2018, and the Guard had 89, down from 136.

The rate in the reserves for 2019 was 18.2 per 100,000, down from 22.9 per 100,000 in 2018 and 20.3 for the Guard, down from 30.8 per 100,000.

According to DoD, the active duty and reserve rates are on par with the age-adjusted civilian population while the National Guard remains higher.

"I'm very concerned with the trends in the military as well as in the civilian sector. This is a shared challenge," Orvis said.

The Pentagon has long struggled to address the problem of suicides in the ranks, attacking the issue with fervor in 2012, when the number of deaths, 319, and the rate, 22.7 per 100,000, were the highest since the DoD began tracking the data following the 9/11 attacks.

Yet despite seeing a decline in 2013, the numbers and rates began rising again in 2014.

"Every suicide is devastating and forever changes the lives of families and communities. DoD has the responsibility of supporting and protecting those who defend our country," said Elizabeth Van Winkle, executive director for Force Resiliency in the office of the under secretary of defense for Personnel and Readiness.

The Army, the largest military service, had the highest number of active-duty suicides as well as the highest overall rate among the services in 2019.

According to the report, 142 active-duty soldiers died by suicide last year, a rate of 29.8 per 100,000.

The Marine Corps had the second-highest active-duty rate: 47 Marines died by suicide in 2019, or 25.3 per 100,000.

The Air Force had 83 deaths, a rate of 25.1 per 100,000. The Navy saw 72 deaths, but had the lowest rate of all the services, 21.5 per 100,000.

Army leadership said Thursday that the service has started a "This is My Squad" program designed to ensure that leaders become personally invested in their subordinates' well-being. By connecting, soldiers more easily will be able to tell if a teammate is struggling, said Army Chief of Staff Gen. James McConville and Secretary Ryan McCarthy.

"We need every member of the team engaged. To assist our leaders, front-line Soldiers and civilians, we are fielding better leader visibility tools, new awareness materials and an updated squad leader development course. These initiatives are integral to our efforts to equip leaders at all levels with creative, effective tools for building resilient, cohesive teams," they said in a statement after release of the report.

For the second year in a row, the Defense Department released data about suicides among military family members. According to the report, 128 spouses died by suicide and 65 dependents took their own lives in 2018, a slight uptick from 186 in 2017, the latest years for which figures were available.

The suicide rate for spouses was 12.1 per 100,000, with the rate being excessively high for male spouses -- 40.9 per 100,000 persons, an increase from 29.4 per 100,000 the previous year. The rate was 8 per 100,000 for female spouses.

The rate of suicide among military dependents younger than 23 was 3.9 per 100,000 dependents. For males, the rate was 5.8 per 100,000, significantly lower than the U.S. civilian rate of 9.3 per 100,000 for men and boys under age 23.

The report did not provide a rate for female dependents, as the low number, fewer than 20, would provide a "statistically unstable" result.

According to the report, firearms continue to be the most common method of suicide among military personnel, with as well as spouses and dependents. Roughly 60% of active-duty personnel, 66% of Reserve members and 79% of National Guardsmen took their own lives with a gun, with nearly all using a personal firearm.

More than 57% of spouses and 52% of dependents used a firearm. Since nationwide, roughly 45% of suicides involve a firearm, the discrepancy represents an opportunity to save lives by educating military personnel and families about safe storage of personal firearms and gun safety, Orvis said.

DoD has begun teaching non-medical counselors, including chaplains and Military OneSource personnel, on discussing risk factors for suicide and safe storage of firearms. The military is also broadening that training to spouses and other counselors in the community, according to Orvis.

The Pentagon each year conducts an in-depth study of every suicide in the ranks. The most recent, the 2018 Department of Defense Suicide Event Report released earlier this year, found that those who took their own lives were likely to be under age 25, white, junior enlisted personnel.

Orvis said junior troops remain the top concern.

"We will continue to build on last year's efforts while also focusing on new efforts to target the military populations of greatest concern, our young and enlisted members as well as continuing to support military families," Orvis said.

If you or someone you know needs help, the Veterans Crisis Line is staffed 24 hours a day, seven days a week, at 800-273-8255, press 1. Services also are available online at www.veteranscrisisline.net or by text, 838255.

-- Patricia Kime can be reached at patricia.kime@monster.com. Follow her on Twitter at @patriciakime.

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