Overall Military Suicide Rate Dropped, But Active-Duty Deaths Increased Slightly, Pentagon Reports

Combat boots line the stage of Beaty Theater at Fort Gregg-Adams, Virginia, during Suicide Prevention and Awareness in remembrance of service members lost to suicide.
Combat boots line the stage of Beaty Theater at Fort Gregg-Adams, Virginia, on Sept. 20, 2023, during Suicide Prevention and Awareness in remembrance of service members lost to suicide. (Ericka Gillespie/Fort Gregg-Adams photo)

Suicide rates throughout the military decreased slightly last year, according to the latest annual data released by the Defense Department on Thursday.

The overall number of troop suicide deaths throughout the active-duty force, National Guard and reserves dropped from 524 in 2021 to 492 in 2022, the department said. However, for active-duty service members specifically, the rate increased slightly last year to 331, up from 328 in 2021.

Defense officials noted that the suicide rate among active-duty troops remains less than the 383 deaths seen in 2020, during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.

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Military suicide rates, which are measured per 100,000, largely reflect trends seen in the general U.S. population. For both populations, those most at risk of suicide are men -- almost 93% of military suicides in 2022 were enlisted men.

This year's report was the first to incorporate data on the childhood background of troops. An estimated 14% of service members who died by suicide had some form of childhood trauma, though officials who briefed reporters on findings noted that childhood information is collected only after death, which may lead to incomplete assessments.

The annual report comes amid a host of suicide prevention efforts led by Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, though it was unclear whether any contributed to the shift in suicides.

The initiatives came as the result of a 2022 department suicide prevention review board, after which the Defense Department committed to improving accessibility of mental health care services and improving safe storage of firearms.

The department is working to hire 2,000 new mental health care professionals, including 400 who will start working in the coming months, according to The Associated Press.

"Even one suicide is too many," Austin said in a statement Thursday. "We have much more work to do to reduce suicide across our force, and owe it to our service members and our military families to provide the best possible care; to identify risk factors and spot warning signs; and to eliminate the tired old stigmas around seeking help."

The report also noted that firearms were the leading means of suicide, accounting for almost 70% of all the deaths.

In February, the department's suicide prevention review board recommended that military exchange stores stop selling firearms to troops under 25, to help curb suicide deaths.

But last month, the Pentagon confirmed that it will not enforce age restrictions on base firearm purchases. Barring gun purchases made by troops under 25 could help prevent suicides, experts said, but defense officials cited significant legal hurdles that would prevent implementation.

Suicide has been a difficult problem for the military, which has tried various approaches to reduce the deaths for years with little success.

Mental health care appointments in the military often have notoriously long wait times.

Some troops or spouses have historically avoided seeking mental health assistance for fear of inadvertent career consequences, though the Defense Department has worked toward cultural change in part by recently implementing the Brandon Act, which allows a service member to self-refer for in-depth mental health assessments.

Veterans and service members experiencing a mental health emergency can call the Veteran Crisis Line, 988 and press 1. Help also is available by text, 838255, and via chat at VeteransCrisisLine.net.

Related: Pentagon Says It Will Not Restrict Gun Access to Prevent Suicide Despite Recommendations

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