Suicide rates in the U.S. military increased from 2015 to 2020 and the trend shows no signs of slowing, Pentagon officials acknowledged Thursday while releasing the Department of Defense’s 2020 Annual Suicide Report.
Pentagon officials said 580 active-duty service members died at their own hands in 2020, a 15% jump over the 504 suicides recorded in the previous year. While 2019 was a drop from the previous year, the five-year trend remains on the increase, officials said.
“I feel these losses personally and mourn alongside the families and loved ones of those we have lost,” Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said in a statement. “Each suicide sends forth wave after wave of pain and grief. One such tragedy is too many.”
The suicide rate increased from 2015 to 2020 — 20.3 to 28.7 suicides per 100,000 service members. A rise in the rate of suicide deaths across all services was observed, according to the study.
Dr. Karin Orvis, director of the Defense Suicide Prevention Office, said military members aren’t immune from the mental health challenges faced by the civilian community, and military personnel face an extra hurdle in admitting they need help.
“Suicide remains a serious public health issue in our nation and military. Our efforts must address the many aspects of life that impact suicide,” Dr. Orvis said in a statement. “We are continuing to collaborate with federal and non-federal partners to change the conversation around mental health and suicide.”
The researchers called suicide “the culmination of multiple factors and complex interactions” and said an in-depth examination of the risk factors associated with suicide was beyond the scope of the report. But they did highlight some issues that could contribute to military suicides, including relationship problems, financial difficulties and legal or administrative issues.
In 2019, more than a quarter of active and reserve suicide deaths were the subject of some type of judicial difficulty — from Uniform Code of Military Justice proceedings to administrative separation hearings — in the 90 days prior to death, according to the report.
The study indicated that suicide rates for both military members and spouses were comparable to the rate of the overall U.S. population. Service members at a higher suicide risk are mostly enlisted, male and under 30.
“The findings are troubling. Suicide rates among our service members and military families are still too high and the trends are not going in the right direction,” Mr. Austin said.
Pentagon officials say they are continuing to focus on skill development training for young military members, the most vulnerable to suicide. The training includes teaching coping and problem-solving skills to deal with stressful situations early in a military career.
A reluctance to seek help and the stigma associated with mental health are also risk factors for suicide, the study said.
While the report covered a period before the controversial U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, Mr. Austin said he realized these are “difficult days” for many people in the Pentagon workforce.
“As I have said, ‘Mental health is health — period.’ We must all do more, at every level, to end the stigma against getting help,” Mr. Austin said. “Reaching out is a sign of strength and resilience.”
Confidential support for veterans is available at websites such as militaryonesource.mil or veteranscrisisline.net.