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.
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.
“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.