Just like combat, over the last 20 years, suicide is something all too familiar to the U.S. military. Suicide affects both the active-duty military, which includes active National Guard and reservists, and veterans, alike. It is very alarming that we lose more veterans to suicide each year than all the troops we lost in 20 years of combat operations combined. In spite of the efforts of the Veterans Affairs (VA) and the Pentagon to reduce suicides, the numbers are trending in the wrong direction. Military suicides are still increasing.
On September 30, 2021, the Department of Defense released the Calendar Year (CY) 2020 Annual Suicide Report (ASR). According to the report, the suicide rate increased from 26.3 suicides per 100,000 active-duty troops in 2019, to 28.7 suicides per 100,000 in 2020. While this number is statistically small and not a huge change from 2019 to 2020, it is an all-time high since the Pentagon started keeping detailed records in 2008.
Every suicide is a significant tragedy, both for the families of the servicemembers and the military. Every suicide is a devastating loss of life. These numbers all reflect real people, real lives, and real struggles.
A Disturbing Trend
In 2008, the number of suicides per 100,000 troops was 16.9. The change to 28.7 suicides per 100,000 in 2020 equates to an approximately 70 percent increase over 13 years. This is a significant, disturbing trend that does not seem to be slowing down.
In 2012, the suicide rate peaked at 22.9 but then dropped in 2013 to 18.5 suicides per 100,000. However, since 2014 and 2015, when the rate was flat for two years, it has increased every year from 20.2 suicides to the current number of 28.7.
This is also concerning and seemingly inexplicable given that the operational tempo of the military has decreased in the last several years. A continuous increase in the suicide rate would be understandable if combat operations had increased. However, since the opposite is true, the increase in suicides highlights a heightened risk and continued lack of understanding.
According to the Pentagon, the “report presents 95% confidence intervals to account for random error associated with suicide rate estimation.” Further, the report specifies that “[at] times, a death cannot be classified as a suicide due to a lack of evidence of intent.” Additionally, the deaths of Reservists and National Guardsmen are reported by civilian medical authorities. This potentially means that the suicide rate could even be slightly higher.
The Report’s Key Findings
In the 2020 report, there are many key findings. The Army and the Marines, for example, have a higher suicide rate compared to the other services. Further, young, white, enlisted males under the age of 30 are the demographic with the highest risk.
Fortunately, it does not appear that COVID-19 created a spike in the number of suicides from 2019 to 2020.
More Work Needs to Be Done to Combat Military Suicides
According to Dr. Karin Orvis, Director of the Defense Suicide Prevention Office, as quoted in the Pentagon press release announcing the report,
“Suicide remains a serious public health issue in our Nation and military. Our efforts must address the many aspects of life that impact suicide. The Department is engaged in implementing a comprehensive public health approach to suicide prevention and is providing tailored resources to mitigate the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. There is much more work ahead of us, and we will not relent in our efforts to provide the care and support our Service members and their families need and deserve.”
The Department of Defense must identify more suicide stressors and the reasons why suicides keep increasing. It will be difficult to slow this upward trend without a change in strategy. In the report, the DoD mentions that program evaluation is an essential part of suicide prevention. Unfortunately, these DoD suicide prevention programs are not slowing the trend. It is time to identify why and implement a new strategy. While military suicides will never be eliminated, it is a worthy, vital effort that must be prioritized.
If you are struggling with suicidal thoughts, or know someone who is, help and resources are available. Visit www.militaryonesource.mil, or call 800-342-9647 for more information. Online chat is available, with the Veterans and Military Crisis Line: www.veteranscrisisline.net, or call 800-273-8255 (press 1). Support can also be reached via text, at 838255.
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