U.S. military suicides spiked 15% last year during the coronavirus pandemic, prompting senior military leaders to sound the alarm.
The upward trend was strongest in the Army and Marine Corps.
Across all branches of the U.S. Armed Forces, there were 580 suicides last year, 76 more than in 2019, according to a Defense Department report released Thursday.
Among active-duty Army troops, suicides rose by close to 20%, and among Army National Guard troops, that number rose 35% from 76 in 2019 to 103 last year.
In the Marine Corps, suicides jumped more than 30% from 47 to 62 from 2019 to last year, and the Marine Corps Reserves saw 10 deaths, one more than in 2019.
The Air Force saw the number of suicides remain the same at 109. The Navy saw a decrease in suicides from 81 to 79.
The numbers going back several more years show an even more dramatic trend. From 2015 to 2020, the suicide rate among active duty service members has increased by 41%.
“The findings are troubling,” said Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin. “Suicide rates among our service members and military families are still too high, and the trends are not going in the right direction.”
Nevertheless, Defense Department officials said Thursday that the increased suicide rate of about 2 per 100,000 troops, is not “statistically significant” and is within the margin of error. From 2019 to 2020, the suicide rate increased from about 26 deaths to 28 deaths per 100,000 troops.
In 2018, a total of 543 troops died by suicide. Officials said it is not clear why the number dipped in 2019 only to rise even higher in 2020.
Most of those who died by suicide are enlisted men under the age of 30. The most common method was a firearm, then hanging or asphyxiation.
The causes of the spike in military suicides last year are not altogether clear, acknowledged Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby.
“One of the things that is bedeviling about suicide is that it’s often very hard to connect dots in causality — what leads somebody to make that decision,” Kirby said. “It’s difficult to denote specific causality with suicide on an individual basis, let alone on an institutional basis. And I think that’s why it’s so difficult for us to speak to it with any specificity, except to say we take this very, very seriously.”
Officials also said they are continuing to work to remove the stigma surrounding seeking help for mental health issues.
“While there is no clear understanding of what is causing the increase in suicides, we realize we have to do better in preventing suicide and ensure resources are available and readily accessible,” read a statement from Army Secretary Christine Wormuth and Gen. James C. McConville, Army chief of staff.
“Preventing suicide across our total forces is top priority,” said Karin Orvis, director of the Defense Department’s suicide prevention office. “These trends do not rest well with me, or the department. I fully realize we have more work to do.”
Military.com notes: “If you or someone you know is thinking about suicide, please call the veterans crisis hotline at 800-273-8255, option 1. You can also call the national suicide prevention line at 800-273-8255.”