WASHINGTON – Suicides across the active duty U.S. military decreased over the past 18 months, driven by sharp drops in the Air Force and Marine Corps last year and a similar decline among Army soldiers during the first six months of this year, according to a new Pentagon report and preliminary data for 2022.
The numbers show a dramatic reversal of what has been a fairly steady increase in recent years.
The shift follows increased attention by senior military leaders and an array of new programs aimed at addressing what has been a persistent problem in all the services, although it's unclear what impact any of the programs had or if pandemic-related restrictions played any role in the decline.
The Defense Department is still grappling with widespread shortages of mental health personnel and a difficult push to reduce the stigma of seeking help. But the numbers provide a glimmer of hope that some of the recent changes — which range from required counseling visits to stress relief education and recreational outings — may be working.
According to the data, the number of suicides in the Air Force and Marine Corp dropped by more than 30% in 2021 compared with 2020, and the Navy saw a 10% decline. The Army saw a similar 30% decrease during the first six months of this year, compared with the same time period last year.
The Army decline comes in the wake of a spate of suicides at Army bases last year, including in Alaska, which fueled a small increase in deaths compared with 2020. The Army was the only military service to have more suicides in 2021 than in 2020 — 176 compared with 174. But it is also the only service that has seen a decline this year.
The Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps have all had a bit more suicides in the first six months of 2022 than during the same time period last year, according to preliminary Pentagon data. That makes it unclear if the downward trend will continue through the end of this year.
According to Defense Department data, there were 328 suicides by active duty service members in 2021, compared with 384 in 2020. In the first six months of 2021, there were 173 suicides, compared with 158 in that time frame this year. That drop is entirely due to the Army, which had 101 in the first half of 2021, and 69 in that time period this year.
The National Guard and the Reserves both saw a small dip in suicides, from 121 in 2020 to 119 in 2021. And there were also fewer Guard deaths in the first half of 2022, compared with last year. Suicides in the Reserves went up, from 29 to 36.
The Guard has worked over the last year to reduce suicides through outreach and other changes, including policies to destigmatize getting mental health help and a program that provides firearms locks for service members who keep weapons at home, said Army Maj. Gen. Eric Little, head of manpower and personnel for the Guard.
Little said that in some cases, if service members report they are seeking counseling, it can affect their security clearance or flying eligibility. He said officials are working to change policies.
Suicide has long been a problem in the U.S. military, and its causes are complex and not fully understood. Behavioral research has linked military suicides to a range of personal issues, including finances and marital stress.
The Pentagon report released Thursday said that “intimate relationship problems in the last year was the most common interpersonal stressor identified” in both suicide and suicide-attempts. And Little said relationship stress continues to be one of the leading risk factors for the Guard, as well as work stress, substance abuse and sexual abuse.
Defense leaders have noted that the complexity of the causes makes it difficult to address, since there is no one-size-fits-all cure.
Yvette Bourcicot, the acting assistant Army secretary for manpower, told the AP on Thursday that while staffing shortfalls continue, the service is “being creative” in using other personnel such as chaplains and health and fitness coaches to fill the gaps.
“The amount of attention that we’re paying to it, I think, is hopefully — we’re cautiously optimistic — what is translating into the downward trend,” said Bourcicot. 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 at the 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’ve got 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 out of 14,000 soldiers, he said, used the time to talk with the counselor.
The trends of those who die by suicide, however, have been consistent.
Pentagon officials said that they are working on hiring 2,000 more mental health care personnel and hope to have the first 400 on board in the coming months.
According to the Pentagon report, overwhelmingly they are white male, enlisted service members under the age of 30. In 2021, roughly 94% of military suicides were men. And they most often used a gun — usually a personally owned one, not a military firearm. The second most common method was hanging or asphyxiation.
The report said the suicide rate — which is the number of deaths per 100,000 service members — has gradually gone up since 2011, and is similar to that of the U.S. population, when adjusted for age and gender.
The data for military spouses and dependents for calendar year 2020 was also released. Suicides by spouses were divided almost equally by gender and nearly 80% were under the age of 40. Again, most — 60% — used a firearm. Military dependents who die by suicide were most often male and under the age of 18.
Suicide attempts, meanwhile, most often involved poisoning. which includes drugs and alcohol. The report said more than 1,200 people attempted suicide, and 67 tried two or more times.
Associated Press writer Tara Copp contributed to this report.