The Pentagon is concerned over a report which states that suicides among active-duty U.S. military service members increased by as much as 20 percent during the coronavirus pandemic.
The services are still compiling data but according to both Army and Air Force officials, the isolation caused by the coronavirus pandemic is adding stress to servicemembers. Nowhere is this more serious than the Army, where active-duty suicides have spiked by nearly 30 percent in 2020. The Army has already suffered 114 suicides this year compared to 88 by the same time last year.
In contrast, Air Force officials are reporting 98 suicides thus far this year, the number is unchanged from this time in 2019. However, this has been the highest number in over 30 years for the Air Force.
Marine Corps and Navy chiefs did not respond when asked to comment on the latest rise in suicide rates.
Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy told the AP on Sunday that they are still searching for the exact cause behind the spike in suicides. Yet, they believe that there is a relation with the coronavirus pandemic.
“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,” he said.
“We cannot say definitively [that the spike in suicides] is because of COVID. But there is a direct correlation from when COVID started, the numbers actually went up.”
“We know that the measures we took to mitigate and prevent the spread of COVID could amplify some of the factors that could lead to suicide,” James Helis, Director of the Army’s resilience program, said after attending the briefings on suicide data for the military.
According to the preliminary data compiled by DOD, the actual numbers of active-duty suicides were dipping for the first three months of 2020 as compared to the first three months of 2019. Pentagon leaders were hoping that the new suicide prevention programs were bearing fruit. But then, coronavirus hit.
Senior Army leaders told Newsweek magazine that one of the ways they are looking to decrease the number is by shortening the length of time for combat deployments. Soldiers’ 10-month deployments stretched to 11 months because of the two-week coronavirus quarantines before and after the redeployment movement of troops.
“COVID adds stress,” the Air Force Chief of Staff, General Charles Brown, said in a statement. “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”
Army Chief of Staff, General James McConville, told the AP that now might be the time to change the Pentagon’s focus: “We were very focused on readiness four years ago because we had some readiness challenges, and we did a great job. The force is very, very ready now. But I think it’s time now to focus on people.”
General McConville and Sergeant Major of the Army, Michael Grinston, said that individual units are working on bringing troops together, ensuring they connect with one another and their families in a manner of looking out for one another. They termed these initiatives “stand-up” days.
Veterans and military leaders urged troops to watch out for fellow service members, particularly wounded warriors who may be less inclined to reach out for medical or mental health help due to infection concerns. Officials are worried that wounded warriors, especially amputees, may be feeling an increased sense of isolation, as medical appointments are being increasingly switched to virtual or telehealth calls with doctors and therapists.
Troops and veterans in need of assistance are urged to visit https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org/talk-to-someone-now or call the National Suicide Prevention Line at 1-800-273-8255. Specifically, veterans can reach the VA’s Veterans Crisis Line by dialing 1-800-273-8255 and then pressing 1.