Suicides rose by 15% in 2020 among U.S. military personnel, part of a report released by the Pentagon on Thursday that the defense secretary described as “troubling.”
A total of 384 active-duty service members, 77 reservists and 119 National Guard men and women took their own lives, according to the Defense Department’s Annual Suicide Report, totaling 580 service members. That figure was up from 504 in 2019 and 543 in 2018.
As seen in previous DoD reports on suicide, military personnel at risk are largely young -- under 30 -- white, enlisted and male. Between 64% and 80% of suicides were carried out by firearms, 87% of which were privately owned.
In a letter accompanying the release of the report, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said that “suicide rates among our service members and military families are still too high, and the trends are not going in the right direction.”
Because of the role firearms plays in military suicides, the Defense Department has embarked on a campaign to educate its personnel on misconceptions surrounding firearms storage and use and is developing a firearm safety training initiative that includes suicide prevention content, Karin Orvis, director of the department's suicide prevention office, told reporters.
"While the presence of a firearm does not cause someone to be suicidal, research tells us that storing a loaded firearm at home increases the risk of dying by suicide up to four to six times," Orvis said.
Orvis downplayed the increase for 2020, and the year-over-year increases in the past three years, saying that they reflected a relatively flat course when considering the margin of error. The Pentagon has reported a sharp escalation in suicides among active-duty personnel since 2015.
"That sounds very statistical," Orvis said after explaining how the office makes its calculations, "but this is a rigorous, best practice in terms of industry standards on how we look at our data to draw conclusions and then use that to inform our policies and programs."
The rates -- the number of deaths compared in relation to the population size -- increased slightly for the active duty and Reserve forces -- from 26.3 per 100,000 in 2019 to 28.7 for the active duty and for Reserves, from 18.2 to 21.7 per 100,000 -- and significantly for the National Guard, from 20.5 to 27 per 100,000.
When broken down by service, the numbers and rates for active-duty deaths show alarming increases for the Army and Marine Corps. The Army saw 175 suicides in 2020, a rate of 36.4 per 100,000, up from 30.7 per 100,000 in 2019, while 62 Marines died by suicide in 2020, a rate of 33.9 per 100,000.
In 2019, the Marine Corps had 47 suicides, a rate of 25.3 per 100,000.
The Air Force saw its number and rates decrease, down from 82 deaths in 2019 -- a rate of 24.8 per 100,000 -- to 81 in 2020, or 24.3 per 100,000.
And the Navy had the lowest deaths by suicide of the services, 66, a rate of 19.3 per 100,000, down from 74 in 2019 or 22.1 per 100,000.
DoD officials said the military rates are comparable to the U.S. civilian population when adjusted for age and gender, although they did not provide the exact rate they use for comparison.
Earlier this month, the Department of Veterans Affairs released a report noting that the suicide rate among veterans fell by roughly 7% in 2019, the most recent year for the data.
For the third straight year, the DoD suicide report contains information on suicides among military family members. Those rates, too, are trending upward but not with "statistical significance," according to DoD.
In 2019 -- the most recent year for military family data -- 202 dependents took their own lives, a rate of 7.7 per 100,000, up from 191 the previous year, or 7.2 per 100,000.
Of those deaths, 130 were spouses and 72 were children ranging in age from 12 to 23.
As with the military service members, firearms played a significant role, with guns being the leading method of suicide for 41% of the deaths of female spouses and 72% of male spouses.
In the general U.S. population, about 31% of suicides by adult females ages 18 to 60 are conducted by firearm.
Orvis added that the department plans to work to reduce the stigma associated with mental health treatment, focusing its message on young enlisted personnel. She said DoD also seeks to improve outreach with military families, connecting them with counselors, screening for depression and suicide risk at primary care visits and understanding suicide risk among military spouses.
If you are a service member or veteran who needs help, it is available 24/7 at the Veterans and Military Crisis Line, 800-273-8255 (press 1), by texting 838255, or through the online chat function at www.veteranscrisisline.net.
-- Patricia Kime can be reached at Patricia.Kime@Monster.com. Follow her on Twitter @patriciakime.