It’s no secret that the U.S. military has been battling a suicide problem. Since 9/11, more U.S. military personnel have died by suicide than have died in combat. Suicide rates among U.S. military personnel are higher than the civilian population and have been steadily increasing for the past two decades. In fact, a study released in 2021 reported that “2018, 2019, and 2020 have consecutively marked the worst years of active service member suicide since the previous peak year in 2012.”
However, the numbers since 2020 tell a different story—one that offers a glimmer of hope.
According to a new Pentagon report and preliminary data for 2022 reported by PBS News, there has been a dramatic decrease in suicides among active duty military in the past 18 months. The Air Force and Marine Corps saw a more than 30% drop from 2020 to 2021, while the Navy saw its numbers of suicides decrease by 10%. The Army had a slight increase from 2020 to 2021, but has had a 30% decline during the first six months of 2022 compared to the first six months of 2021.
The numbers in different branches have gone up and down in the past 18 months, leaving questions on the table about whether those downward trends are likely to continue, but according to Beth Foster, the executive director of the Pentagon’s Force Resiliency Office, the 15% drop across the board leaves Pentagon officials “cautiously encouraged.”
The biggest question, of course, is what is driving these numbers. There have been concerted efforts to increase mental health awareness and support in the military, such as required counseling visits, education about stress relief and recreational outings, according to PBS News. However, such efforts have also been an uphill climb due to mental health personnel shortages and stigmas surrounding help-seeking.
As Dr. Dorothy Kaplan wrote in her guidance for clinicians in 2019, “Mental health stigma in the military is strongly grounded in military culture and is linked to a desire to handle problems on one’s own.”
“Interestingly,” she added, “service members who report psychological health concerns are most likely to perceive stigma and anticipate negative outcomes for seeking care, including career harm.”
Maj. Gen. Eric Little, head of manpower and personnel for the National Guard, told PBS News that security clearance and flying eligibility can be affected in some cases when service members report seeking counseling, but officials are working to change such policies.
More successful mental health interventions and changing attitudes toward mental health treatment in general may be contributing to the drop in active duty military suicides. However, 2020 and 2021 also had a big confounding factor: the COVID-19 pandemic.
Suicides overall in the U.S. declined in 2019 and again in 2020 before climbing again in 2021. The active duty military numbers do not appear to parallel that trend, so it’s difficult to say what impact the pandemic may have had on active duty personnel suicides. Causes of military suicides are multifaceted and figuring out how to address them is complex.
More time and data will be needed to determine whether this drop in suicide numbers is a trend or a blip. However, the Defense Department continues to address the issue through various channels across the different branches of the military. According to CBS News, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin created a Suicide Prevention and Response Independent Review Committee earlier this year and will be presenting a report on its progress to Congress in February 2023.
“Every death by suicide is a tragedy that impacts our people, our military units and our [combat] readiness,” Austin said in a statement on October 20. “That’s why we remain committed to a comprehensive and integrated approach to suicide prevention. Going forward, we are standing up a dedicated prevention workforce to strengthen our efforts to address suicide and other challenging areas. The scale of this workforce is unprecedented and reflects our commitment to make lasting change.”
It’s great to finally see some more positive news on the military suicides front. Hopefully we’ll keep seeing those numbers drop.