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Defense Department Reports Increase in Active-Duty Suicides in 2020

Service member decedents were largely enlisted, male, and less than 30 years of age, regardless of military population.

Today, the Department of Defense (DOD) released the Calendar Year (CY) 2020 Annual Suicide Report (ASR).  We continue to take action to prevent suicides while supporting our military members and their families.  Every death by suicide is a tragedy.  The CY 2020 ASR presents recent suicide data for Service members and their families, and describes current and future efforts underway to combat suicide.

“Although our Service members constantly show the ability to achieve the seemingly impossible, for some of our brothers and sisters in arms, they experience challenging times just as many other Americans do,” said Major General Clement S. Coward, Acting Executive Director, Office of Force Resiliency.  “Getting this right is personal for all of us at the Department.  Yet, prevention can be complex.  As the scientific research about suicide prevention continues to evolve, we continue to do everything possible to stop these tragedies.  No two individuals are identical, and no two life experiences are identical.  So we are working to address a range of risk factors and enhance protective factors for members of our Armed Forces.”

Dr. Karin Orvis, Director of the Defense Suicide Prevention Office, added, “Suicide remains a serious public health issue in our Nation and military.  Our efforts must address the many aspects of life that impact suicide.  The Department is engaged in implementing a comprehensive public health approach to suicide prevention and is providing tailored resources to mitigate the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.  There is much more work ahead of us, and we will not relent in our efforts to provide the care and support our Service members and their families need and deserve.”

While suicide rates are not going in the desired direction, the Department did not see a statistical change in suicide rates between CY 2020 and CY 2019 or CY 2018 that would indicate a COVID-19-related increase.  We recognize the impact of COVID-19 on the well-being of our force and our Nation.  During this time, we continue our efforts to educate and support the force, promote a variety of resources such as mental telehealth resources and financial counseling, and emphasize social connectedness.

“The military community – while resilient – is not immune from the same challenges that impact the Nation,” said Dr. Orvis.  “We are continuing to collaborate with federal and non-federal partners to change the conversation around mental health and suicide, increase help-seeking for mental health challenges and everyday stressors such as relationship and financial challenges, and educate about key suicide misconceptions with facts.  We’re in this together, and now more than ever we need leaders, Service members, family, and friends to connect and to reach for support for yourself and loved ones,” said Orvis.

Data from the CY 2020 ASR

In CY 2020, there were 580 Service members who tragically died by suicide.  The ASR for CY 2020 shows that the suicide rate for the Active Component statistically increased from CY 2015 to CY 2020.  There was no statistically significant increase or decrease for the Reserve and National Guard from CY 2015 to CY 2020.  In the near-term for the Reserve, the CY 2020 rate was statistically comparable to both CY 2019 and CY 2018; the National Guard rate had statistically decreased from CY 2018 to CY 2019, returning to a comparable level in CY 2020.

We see continued risk for young and enlisted members.  The CY 2019 military suicide rates for the Active Component, Reserve, and National Guard were comparable to the U.S. population, after accounting for age and sex.  With respect to CY 2020, the most recent U.S. population suicide data available is for CY 2019.  Accordingly, the data needed to compare for CY 2020 are not yet available.

The Department uses both internal and civilian data sources to determine military family member suicide deaths.  The ASR includes CY 2019 data, as that is the most recent annual civilian source data available.  In CY 2019, 202 military family members tragically died by suicide.  The suicide rates for military spouses and dependents in CY 2019 were statistically comparable with CY 2017 and CY 2018, and to the U.S. population rates, except for male spouses, which was higher.

Prevention Efforts

Based on the findings from this year’s report, the Department will focus on addressing perceived barriers to seeking help and encourage use of support resources, especially among young and enlisted members.  For example, the Department is expanding a promising help-seeking focused training pilot to geographically-isolated Service members and those outside the continental United States.

For military families, the Department is increasing screening of military families for depression and suicide risk, supporting an outreach campaign to normalize relationship help-seeking, and expanding safety and safe storage of lethal means, such as firearms and medications.  The Department is also exploring ways to better understand help-seeking behaviors, perceived barriers to care, and suicide thoughts and behaviors among military spouses.

The CY 2020 report includes Fiscal Year 2020/2021 National Defense Authorization Act reporting requirements, and represents the department’s continued commitment to provide transparency, accountability, and timely information on this critical issue.

The CY 2020 ASR will be available at https://www.dspo.mil/ASR/.

Service members and veterans who are in crisis or having thoughts of suicide, and those who know a service member or veteran in crisis, can call the Veterans/Military Crisis Line for confidential support available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. Call (800) 273-8255 and Press 1, text to 838255 or chat online at VeteransCrisisLine.net/Chat.

Read more at the Defense Department

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The Government Technology & Services Coalition's Homeland Security Today (HSToday) is the premier news and information resource for the homeland security community, dedicated to elevating the discussions and insights that can support a safe and secure nation. A non-profit magazine and media platform, HSToday provides readers with the whole story, placing facts and comments in context to inform debate and drive realistic solutions to some of the nation’s most vexing security challenges.

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