During the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, suicides among active-duty troops were frequently reported. Since then, news reports have subsided but the suicides have not. In fact, a 2022 report from the Defense Suicide Prevention Office revealed that there were more suicides in 2021 than any other year since the September 11 attacks. According to Army Times, suicide deaths among active-duty troops in 2021 “climbed to its highest level since the Great Depression — 36.18 per 100,000 soldiers.”
And 2022 generated more grim statistics. There were six suicides in the Army’s new primary Arctic headquarters, four in November of last year alone, and four suicides among sailors at the Norfolk, Virginia-based Mid-Atlantic Regional Maintenance Center in December of last year after the death of three sailors assigned to the USS George Washington, docked in Virginia, in April of last year.
Reasons for the Arctic deaths may include the difficulty of recruiting mental health professionals to that area, the cold weather and extended darkness, and the difficulty of visiting loved ones from such a far outpost, suggested an article in Military Times. The Virginia sailor deaths may also represent a lack of onsite mental health professionals as well as feelings of being “overworked and undervalued,” according to a sailor on the USS George Washington.
Military.com originally reported the ship experienced ten suicides in under a year but later offered differing and lower figures; the Navy indicated that there was a string of suicides on that ship since November 2019.
Suicides among veterans are also alarming and may be double federal estimates, according to Military Times.
Possible factors behind suicide
According to Gregg F. Martin, an Army combat veteran and retired two-star general, “Most all suicides result from a combination of two things: a mental health disorder—depression, bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress (PTS), traumatic brain injury (TBI), morale injury, survivors guilt, etc., and aggravating social factors such as relationship problems, death of a loved one, loss of job and associated purpose, legal issues—or financial difficulties.”
Military psychological experts agree. “The most common individual stressors identified for both military suicide decedents and military suicide attempts were relationship problems, administrative/legal issues, and workplace difficulties,” says a paper written by the Center for Deployment Psychology at the Uniformed Services University. “Other medical conditions that are associated with an increased risk for suicide include traumatic brain injury (TBI), chronic pain, and sleep disorders. These conditions can contribute substantially to increased suicide risk in affected individuals. The most common method for suicide in the DoD is firearms, accounting for over 60 percent of all suicide deaths in the military.”
According to the non-profit United Service Organizations (USO), service members often “must spend months – sometimes years – away from family and friends in unfamiliar locations,” and yet “social connections can act as a buffer against the impact of stressful or negative life experiences on mental health.”
Recruiting problems: Does Generation Z differ?
The COVID-19 pandemic slowed incoming recruits in 2020, but there are other reasons for tepid enlistment. Marine Lt. Gen. David Ottingnon explained at a 2022 Senate hearing about recruitment, “In addition to COVID-19, the growing disconnect and declining favorable view between the U.S. population and traditional institutions, labor shortages, high inflation, and a population of youth who do not see the value of military service also continue to strain recruiting efforts.”
Financial incentives like the GI Bill are also now duplicated by corporate competitors, said a senior military official at the hearing, making recruitment even more difficult. Moreover, the percentage of young people interested in serving is the lowest in 15 years, reported by the Department of Defense (DOD); fear of injury or death is the leading reason for abstaining, reported CBS News.
Moreover, thanks to obesity and drug use, only 23 percent of Americans between 17 to 24 are eligible to join the service because both are disqualifying factors. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) speculated in 2018 that a full 71 percent of young Americans would be disqualified because of obesity/overweight as well as educational deficits and criminal records.
Mental health concerns
In 2017, published reports suggested the Army had opened recruiting to people with mental health conditions such as bipolar disorder, depression, and self-mutilation who could now obtain waivers for enlistment consideration. In 2009, the Army banned such waivers amid an epidemic of suicides among troops.
However, the Army quickly pushed back against the waiver article asserting that the service did not “lift any outright barriers to service,” as reported. Lt. Gen. Thomas Seamands, the Army’s deputy chief of staff for personnel, told reporters the changes were simply administrative. “For example, a child who received behavioral counseling at age ten would be forever banned from military service were it not for the ability to make a waiver request,” he said.
While those with mental illness generally have to be medication-free for a length of time to enlist, once in the service, they can be medicated. Ten years ago, Military Times found that they spent over $1 billion on troop medications, primarily antidepressants, and anticonvulsants, in just eight years.
Despite questions about the competency of troops on drugs in combat zones (and fears about service members trading medications, Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska is working on a bill to further remove mental health barriers to military service. Dr. P. Murali Doraiswamy, a psychiatry and medicine professor at Duke University, said during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing touching on the bill in 2022, “We have more than three decades of experience now with antidepressants. There’s no evidence whatsoever to indicate that it impairs performance.” Most antidepressant drugs, widely used in the military, contain suicide warnings for young people on their labels, however.
How the military is addressing suicide risks
For those on active duty with suicidal ideation, a crisis line (the Veterans Crisis Line), online chat, and text-messaging services are free and readily available. “Hundreds of men and women in the military call us every day, and start to get back on track,” says a message from the line. The Army maintains a Suicide Prevention Program that is part of the Army’s Ready and Resilient Campaign to improve suicide readiness through training, data collection and analysis, and strategic communications. The DOD also strongly observes Suicide Prevention Month every September.
Gregg Martin, the retired two-star general, adds some other valuable tips to prevent suicides:
1. Training people to recognize the primary symptoms of the most common mental health illnesses.
2. Developing “safe” channels of communication …[that do not appear in] … official records.
3. Expand the notion of a “battle buddy” to include peer-to-peer counseling.
Martin also stresses the need to address the “stigma” surrounding mental health problems and develop more compassionate, less judgmental military leadership. News outlets can help by writing about this important and emotional topic.