Suicides Increase, Puzzling Military

Possible contributors include pandemic and war-zone stress
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Sep 30, 2021 6:20 PM CDT
Military Concedes It Lacks Answers for Suicide Rise
Flags and tributes mark the Memorial Day holiday at Fort Logan National Cemetery in southeast Denver last May.   (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

The number of US military suicides jumped by 15% last year, fueled by significant increases in the Army and Marine Corps that senior leaders called troubling. They urged more effort to reverse the trend, the AP reports. According to data released Thursday, there were 580 suicides last year compared with 504 the prior year. Of those, the number of suicides by Army National Guard troops jumped by about 35%, from 76 in 2019 to 103 last year, and the active-duty Army saw a nearly 20% rise. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin called the findings troubling.

Suicide has long been a problem in the military. While the causes of suicide are complex and not fully understood, military leaders have previously said they believed the COVID-19 pandemic was adding stress to an already-strained force. Troops last year were called to help provide testing and later vaccines while struggling with the virus themselves and among relatives and friends. They also dealt with continued war-zone deployments, national disasters and often violent civil unrest. Behavioral research has linked military suicides to a range of personal issues, including financial and marital stress.

Pentagon press secretary John Kirby acknowledged the Defense Department cannot fully explain the recent increases in suicide. "One of the things that is bedeviling about suicide is that it's often very hard to connect dots in causality—what leads somebody to make that decision," Kirby said. Military leaders for a number of years have sought to reduce the stigma associated with seeking mental health assistance. That message was conveyed last year by Gen. John Hyten, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He said he sought help while heading US Strategic Command from 2016 to 2019. He didn't reveal details but said he saw a psychiatrist—a rare public admission by a senior officer.

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Army leaders on Thursday called suicide a significant challenge for the service, noting that the trend has been worsening for five years. "We realize we have to do better in preventing suicide and ensure resources are available and readily accessible," said Army Secretary Christine Wormuth and Gen. James McConville, Army chief of staff, in a statement. The total number of Navy suicides dipped from 81 to 79, and the Air Force total stayed the same, at 109. According to the Pentagon, enlisted male service members under the age of 30 were most at risk for suicide.

(More military suicides stories.)

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