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2020 Suicide Rates in Military Branches on the Rise

Military suicides have increased as much as 20 percent compared to the same period in 2019 as servicemembers contend with COVID-19, isolation, longer war-zone deployments, national disasters, and civil unrest, according to initial data from the U.S. Army and Air Force.

The Pentagon has not released official numbers of suicides across all branches of the U.S. military for 2020 yet, although individual branches have come forward to raise the issue.

Senior Army leaders told the Associated Press that they have seen about a 30-percent jump in active duty suicides so far in 2020, and they are looking at shortening combat deployments in response (currently at 11 months, due to the extra two weeks of quarantine before and after the usual 10 months of active duty). This move, AP reports, would be part of a broader effort to improve the wellbeing of soldiers and their families.

While military leaders cannot pin the increase in suicides, murder, and other violent behavior solely on the pandemic, the timing shows a correlation, said Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy.

In public remarks, General Charles Brown, Air Force chief, said “COVID adds stress. From a suicide perspective, we are on a path to be as bad as last year. And that’s not just an Air Force problem, this is a national problem because COVID adds some additional stressors—a fear of the unknown for certain folks.”

As of 15 September, there were 98 suicides among active duty Air Force and reserves—unchanged from the same period in 2019, which was the worst in three decades for active duty Air Force suicides.

Brown added that the Air Force has put together a playbook to guide leaders through the crisis, including promoting mental health telemedicine. About 45 percent of Air Force suicides are related to relationship issues, Brown said, so the branch has work to do in helping airmen navigate those problems. One potential solution is including more family members in mental health training, because family and friends are often “the first sensor” to detect behavioral struggles, according to Task and Purpose.

Active duty personnel are not the only ones feeling pressure. Roger Brooks, a senior mental health specialist for the Wounded Warrior Project, told the AP that veterans are reporting increased suicidal symptoms and anxiety. Between April and the end of August, the group saw a 48 percent jump in mental health provider referrals. The unavailability of in-person support groups and treatment routines may be partly to blame.

James Helis, director of the Army’s resilience programs, noted that the availability of private, remote video calls or telehealth appointments with mental health providers is helping to reduce the stigma around seeking behavioral health assistance.

Vice Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff General John Hyten shared a video message in early September about the importance of seeking assistance when under stress. “Our mental and physical health are equally important—they’re the same thing,” he said.

“It’s important that the U.S. military brings light to this complex issue of suicide because regardless of what uniform you wear, we’re not immune from life’s challenges, including thoughts of suicide,” he added.

In the United States, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline’s number is 1-800-273-8255. Military veterans, please press 1. The Crisis Text Line can be reached by texting HOME to 741741 (U.S.), 686868 (Canada), or 85258 (UK).