Pentagon watching COVID-19 effect on suicide rates in military

The number of U.S. military members who took their own life was down slightly in 2019 compared to the previous two years, Pentagon officials said during the release of the Department of Defense Annual Suicide Report, amid concerns the number may have turned up in the trying first three quarters of 2020.

The report said 498 service members — active, reserve and National Guard — died by suicide in 2019, down from 543 the year prior and 513 in 2017. The suicide rates are statistically comparable overall, officials said.

The data from the second annual report points out that military suicide rates are comparable or lower than the U.S. population.

But while the 2019 figures offer some hope, Army officials told reporters there has been a 20% jump in overall military suicides so far this year. The timing lends them to suggest the COVID-19 pandemic may play a role.

“I can read a chart and a graph, and the numbers have gone up in behavioral health-related issues,” Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy told The Associated Press. “We cannot say definitely it is because of COVID. But there is a direct correlation from when COVID started, the numbers actually went up.”

Numbers from the first quarter of 2020 compare favorably to the year before. There were 124 suicides in the military from January through March of 2020 compared to 136 in the first quarter of 2019. But Pentagon officials say it would be premature to conclude how suicide rates will be affected by the stresses of this year.

So far, eight U.S. military members are believed to have died from COVID-19, but the pandemic has disrupted military life in many of the same way as in civilian life, with facilities shut down, furloughs and redeployments canceled, and many base activities and services called off.

“We need to have a full year of data and investigations completed to determine the cause of death,” Karin A. Orvis, director of the Defense Suicide Prevention Office told reporters Thursday at the Pentagon. “What may be looking like an increasing or decreasing trend in the raw count may not be statistically meaningful once we have all the data.”

Pentagon officials said they recognize the potential impact of COVID-19 and are closely monitoring whether it will increase the military’s death by suicide rate.

In October 2018, the Department of Defense began requiring an annual suicide report charting the annual counts and unadjusted rates of suicide per 100,000 people. Pentagon officials said they have made progress in developing and fielding programs targeting potentially troubled young enlisted personnel and National Guard troops — the populations of greatest concern.

“The Department of Defense has the responsibility of supporting and protecting those who defend our country. It is imperative that we do everything possible,” Dr. Orvis said. “We are very concerned about the suicide rates in our military.”

Statistics show that the military suicides are primarily enlisted, male and under 30 years of age. Suicide rates for military spouses and dependents in 2018 were comparable to the year prior and were comparable or lower than the U.S. population rates — with the exception of male spouses.

The report did not examine any potential motives for the suicide. Dr. Orvis called it a “complex interaction of many factors” and said it was also often a sudden and impulsive act.

“Every individual has gone through their own unique journey. No two life experiences are identical,” she said. “Many times, even close friends and family members are surprised by an individual’s suicide.”

As the largest military service, the Army also has the highest tally of suicide cases. In a statement released Thursday, Army Secretary McCarthy said people are their single most important asset.

“And we are losing too many to suicide,” he said. “The Army is committed to identifying and providing services and support to our teammates who may become vulnerable.”

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is a hotline for individuals in crisis or for those looking to help someone else. To speak with someone, call 1-800-273-8255.

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