Active Duty Military Suicides Decreased In 2021, Report Finds
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The number of active duty military suicides decreased last year, according to a Department of Defense (DOD) report issued Thursday.

In 2021, 519 service members died by suicide; by comparison in 2020, 582 died by suicide. The DOD noted that this decrease represented an average of four fewer suicides per 100,000 service members. Liz Clark, director of the DOD Suicide Prevention Office, said that this decrease marked a slight, not total, decline in a decade-long increase in service member suicides.

“There is an increasing trend for all services between 2011 and 2021,” stated Clark. “In the short term, the Army rate [of suicides] was similar to last year, and there was a decrease with the Navy, the Marine Corps and the Air Force. The Air Force was the only statistically significant decrease.”

Overall, the majority of active service members who die by suicide were young men. Although, the DOD reports that the suicide rates of active duty military and civilians are similar. Even when accounting for age and sex differences, the suicide rates of service members were similar to the suicide rates of the greater U.S. population.

As for military families, 202 individuals died by suicide in 2020. That’s an average of 7.7 per 100,000 family members (spouses and dependents). That breaks down to 13 per 100,000 spouses and 4.3 per 100,000 dependents (minors and non-minors). Just as with active duty military, these rates were similar to the suicide rates within the greater U.S. population, excluding male spouses — according to the DOD, they had a higher rate of suicide.

The DOD noted that they lacked the 2021 data for military family suicides at the time of this latest report due to a lag in CDC data accumulation.

In a press release, DOD Secretary Lloyd Austin III said that the report was encouraging, but indicated that more work will be required. Austin stated that the most important means of suicide prevention is destigmatizing the process of asking for help. Austin added that service members’ families were priorities in this process as well.

“It’s on all of us to end the stigma of asking for help and support when we or someone we know is feeling distressed, anxious, or isolated,” said Austin. “Reaching out is a marker of strength and resilience.”

In March, Austin established the DOD’s Suicide Prevention and Response Independent Review Committee (SPRIRC) to improve best practices to prevent suicides. Leading the SPRIRC is Gayle Iwamasa from the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), serving as the mental health service provider. Remaining SPRIRC members are Rebecca Blais, the sexual assault and suicide expert from Arizona State University (ASU); Rajeev Ramchand, the epidemiologist from RAND Corporation; Stephanie Gamble, the substance use disorder expert from the VA; and Craig Bryan, the lethal means safety expert from Ohio State University (OSU).

SPRIRC consultants are Nadja West, a former senior military officer; Kaleth Wright, a former senior enlisted leader; Jerry Reed, a public health and policy expert; Kathy Robertson, a military family member; and Carl Trost, a chaplain.

The SPRIRC will make recommendations to Austin by the end of December, with a report issued to Congress by next February.

Austin also established a global suicide prevention force totaling over 2,000 personnel.

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is a free hotline for individuals in crisis or distress or for those looking to help someone else. It is available 24/7 at 1-800-273-8255.

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