DOD Report Shows Troubling Trend in Military Suicides

April 7, 2021James R. Webb
DOD suicide report on rate increase

A member of the 138th Fighter Wing honor guard performs TAPS during a Purple Heart ceremony at the Tulsa Air National Guard Base, Okla., March 7, 2021. The Purple Heart was awarded to Tech. Sgt. Ariel White, 219th Engineering Installation Squadron, and it was posthumously awarded to Tech. Sgt. Marshal Roberts, 219th EIS. During the ceremony, the 219th EIS building was dedicated to Roberts as a way to remember and honor his heroic sacrifice. Oklahoma Air National Guard Photo by Tech. Sgt. Rebecca Imwalle, courtesy DVIDS.

The US military continues to see a disturbing increase in suicides, according to a report released by the Department of Defense this week. In its fourth-quarter report on military suicide for calendar year 2020, data shows that active-duty suicides are on pace to jump 8% in 2020 to 377 total. 

The total number of suicides among active-duty personnel has risen steadily every year since 2015, when 266 suicides were recorded. Overall, the military is experiencing a nearly 42% increase in suicides among the active ranks over the last six calendar years.

The Reserve and National Guard components of the military have also reported potentially alarming numbers to close out 2020. Among the Reserves and the Guard, 194 suicides occurred during the 2020 calendar year. Although lower than the peak of 226 suicides in 2017, 2020’s reported suicides account for a 25% increase from 2019, when 155 suicides were reported. This jump has been fueled by 57 suicides in the fourth quarter of 2020 alone. By comparison, in 2019, 25 Reserve and Guard members took their own lives during the same time period.

suicide rate increase DoD
Screenshot from page 4 of the Department of Defense’s quarterly report on suicides. The slide shows historical data along with recorded suicides in all four quarters of 2020. Courtesy of DOD/released.

While the dataset will not be complete until the fall when the DOD releases its finalized report, the impacts of service during the pandemic are front and center. A combination of events are believed to play a role in the increase, including a toxic mix of anxiety from the pandemic coupled with the stop-movement order last year, which left many families separated for long periods of time. Separately, Guard and Reserve components have felt the impact of an economic downturn. This, combined with activations to support the COVID-19 response, are likely to be examined as potential root causes for the increase in suicides once the numbers are finalized.

“The DoD recognizes the potential impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the well-being of our Service members and families,” the fourth-quarter 2020 report reads. “We are closely monitoring potential impacts and taking proactive steps to mitigate those potential impacts.”

Stress from the pandemic had the DOD bracing for as much as a 20% increase in overall suicides during 2020. Second-quarter numbers released in September of 2020 showed the Army alone with a nearly 30% increase in suicides among the active force. At the time, leadership attributed this jump to extra operational strains on the force and personal stress placed soldiers during the COVID-19 pandemic.

suicide DoD increase
Mississippi National Guard medics Spc. Christopher Austin, left, 1108th Theater Aviation Sustainment Maintenance Group, and Spc. James Alston of the 1st Battalion, 155th Armored Brigade Combat Team, work alongside employees of the Mississippi Department of Health at the Jackson County Health Department in Pascagoula, Miss., Jan. 4, 2021. The Mississippi National Guard partnered with the Mississippi Department of Health to vaccinate health care workers in the local area. US National Guard photo by A. Danielle Thomas, courtesy of DVIDS.

“We cannot say definitively it is because of COVID. But there is a direct correlation from when COVID started, the numbers actually went up,” then Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy said in a September 2020 interview with The Associated Press, referring to suicide statistics as well as service members committing murders and other violent behavior.

While the data seems to show increasing numbers of military members taking their lives, comments from both DOD officials and in the written report urge caution, as the overall numbers are not final. The DOD releases quarterly suicide reports in real time, but it does not comment on the findings until the following fall. 

“The number of suicide deaths in the current report are preliminary and subject to change, as previously unknown cases are reported and some known cases are further investigated,” the report reads. “The DoD needs to allow appropriate latitude to investigate individual cases to make such a determination, and to then conduct the necessary statistical analyses to understand trends over time.”

While there may still be some adjustments to the overall 2020 numbers, suicide remains a major issue among service members. The most recent data available from the National Institute of Mental Health and from the DOD report shows that service members take their own lives at a much higher rate than their civilian counterparts. The 2018 rate for active-duty military suicides was 24.8 per 100,000, while the total US suicide rate for that year was 14.2 per 100,000.

Read Next: Learning To Live in the World — On Suicide, Surviving, and Saving Others

James R. Webb
James R. Webb

James Webb served as a US Marine infantryman from 2005 to 2010, completing a combat tour in Iraq. He’s worked as a freelance writer and photojournalist covering US troops in Afghanistan, and Webb spent more than two years in the US Senate as a military legislative assistant and as the personal representative of a member on the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

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