The suicide rate for active-duty U.S. military members in 2018 was the highest on record, indicating the services’ need to step up their efforts to address the issue. The number of self-inflicted deaths has climbed from 280 in 2016 to 285 in 2017 to 325 last year.
Although the 2018 rate of 24.8 deaths per 100,000 service members is generally similar to civilian rates, the upward trend is troubling and demands attention, the Pentagon says in its annual suicide report. Over the past five years, the military’s overall suicide rate has risen an average of 6% annually.
Elizabeth Van Winkle, a key Pentagon leader for personnel and readiness issues, rightly observes: “Supporting our military personnel is not only a critical mission to the Department of Defense — it is a sacred obligation. We in the department must do all we can to prevent this tragedy, and we will use the information from this report to inform our efforts.”
Responses adopted by the services include helping service personnel understand warning signs and promoting an environment in which personnel are comfortable to step forward to share their personal struggles. The Veterans and Military Crisis Line provides 24/7 confidential support for service members and family members. It can be reached at 800-273-8255, by texting 838255 or by online chat.
In August, the Air Force declared a one-day stand-down for all wings to focus on suicide prevention efforts. “Suicide is the leading cause of death in the Air Force, and we are committed to considering any action that provides hope for preventing suicide,” said Lynn Kirby, an Air Force spokeswoman.
The official Air Force recommendations on suicide prevention state: “Take all comments about suicide seriously. Be an active listener and let your wingman tell you about their challenges. Although it can be awkward, it’s important to ask the tough questions about whether or not your wingman is thinking about harming or killing himself. … Care for your wingman by calmly listening and expressing concern.”
Air Force leaders, the official statement says, have a duty to “create climates in which service members are encouraged to seek the help they need.” The latest suicide rates for the Marines and National Guard were especially concerning, Pentagon leaders said. “Just as we talk about physical fitness, marksmanship, training and education,” said Gen. David Berger, Marine Corps commandant, “Marines must also be comfortable discussing life’s struggles, mental wellness and suicide. We must create a community where seeking help and assistance are simply normal, important decisions Marines and sailors make.”
The Navy has stepped up its focus on suicide prevention after four sailors on the aircraft carrier George H.W. Bush took their own lives this year. Three of the deaths were in the same week, and two were on the same day. “The sailors did not serve in the same departments, and there does not appear to be a connection between their deaths,” a Navy spokesman said.
Our military service personnel show admirable devotion to our country, often under stressful conditions. It’s crucial that the services give them the support they need to meet any mental and emotional challenges they face.