WASHINGTON (AP) – Suicides in the active-duty U.S. military have declined over the past 18 months, boosted by sharp declines in the Air Force and Marines last year and similar declines among Army soldiers during the first six months of this year, according to a new Pentagon report and preliminary data for 2022. .
The figures show a dramatic reversal from the fairly steady increase of recent years.
The change follows increased attention from senior military leaders and a slew of new programs aimed at addressing what has been a persistent problem across the services, though it’s unclear what impact any of the programs have had or whether pandemic-related restrictions have played any role in the decline. .
The Department of Defense continues to struggle with widespread mental health staffing shortages and tough efforts to reduce the stigma of seeking help. But the numbers offer a glimmer of hope that some of the recent changes — which range from mandatory counseling visits to stress-relief education and recreational trips — may be working.
According to the data, the number of suicides in the Air Force and Marine Corps fell by more than 30 percent in 2021 compared to 2020, and in the Navy by 10 percent. The military saw a similar drop of 30% during the first six months of this year, compared to the same period last year.
The military decline comes after a spate of suicides on military bases last year, including in Alaska, which prompted a small increase in deaths from 2020. The military was the only military service to have more suicides in 2021 than in 2020 — 176 compared to 174. .But it’s also the only service to experience a decline this year.
According to preliminary data from the Pentagon, the Navy, Air Force and Marines had slightly more suicides in the first six months of 2022 than in the same period last year. Therefore, it remains unclear whether the downward trend will continue until the end of this year.
According to the Department of Defense, there were 328 active-duty suicides in 2021, compared to 384 in 2020. In the first six months of 2021, there were 173 suicides, compared to 158 this year. The Army is entirely responsible for that drop, which had 101 in the first half of 2021, and 69 this year in that period.
The National Guard and Reserve saw a small drop in suicides, from 121 in 2020 to 119 in 2021. And there were fewer Guard deaths in the first half of 2022 compared to last year. Suicides in the reserves increased from 29 to 36.
The Garda has worked to reduce suicides over the past year through access and other changes, including policies to destigmatize getting mental health help and a program that provides firearm locks for members who keep guns at home, said Maj. Gen. Eric Little, chief of personnel. and Garda personnel.
Little said that in some cases, if service members report seeking counseling, it could affect their security clearance or eligibility to fly. He said officials are working to change the policy.
Suicide has long been a problem in the US military, and its causes are complex and not fully understood. Behavioral research has linked military suicides to a range of personal problems, including finances and marital stress.
A Pentagon report released Thursday said “problems in intimate relationships in the past year were the most common interpersonal stressor identified” in both suicide and suicide attempts. And Little said relationship stress remains one of the leading risk factors for the Guard, along with job stress, substance abuse and sexual assault.
Defense leaders noted that the complexity of the cause makes it difficult to solve the problem, since there is no one-size-fits-all cure.
Yvette Bourcicot, the acting assistant secretary of the Army for manpower, told the AP on Thursday that while personnel shortages remain, the service is being “creative” in using other personnel such as chaplains and health and fitness coaches to fill the gaps.
“I think the amount of attention we’re giving it, hopefully — we’re cautiously optimistic — is what translates into a downward trend,” Bourcicot said. She also noted that base commanders tailor programs to fit their forces.
For example, Lt. Gen. Douglas Sims, in his previous post as commander at Fort Riley, Kansas, began requiring soldiers on base to meet with a counselor once a year.
“I can’t order anybody to talk to a counselor,” he said earlier this year, just before he left. “But I can tell you, listen, you have to sit in a room for 30 to 60 minutes. And there happens to be a counselor in the same room.”
All but about 10 of the 14,000 troops, he said, used the time to speak with an adviser.
Trends in those who die by suicide are, however, consistent.
According to the Pentagon report, most of them are white men, military personnel under the age of 30. In 2021, approximately 94% of military suicides were male. And most often they used a gun. The second most common method was hanging or suffocation.
The report notes that the suicide rate – which is the number of deaths per 100,000 military personnel – has gradually increased since 2011 and is similar to that of the US population, when adjusted for age and sex.
Data on military spouses and dependents for the calendar year 2020 have also been published. Suicides by spouses were almost equally divided by gender and almost 80% were under the age of 40. Again, the majority — 60% — used firearms. Dependent soldiers who die by suicide were mostly men and under the age of 18.
Meanwhile, suicide attempts most often involved poisoning. which includes drugs and alcohol. The report states that more than 1,200 people attempted suicide, with 67 attempting two or more times.
Associated Press writer Tara Copp contributed to this report.