Update: Army Reports June Suicide Numbers
Posted by Laura Smith on July 19
The Army released suicide numbers for June last week. Among active duty service members there were 9 suspected suicides, with none confirmed. Among non-activated reservists, there were 5 suspected suicides, with 1 confirmed. These numbers are down from May and added to the 113 suspected suicides among the Army’s active and reserve duty service members between January and May this year.
The Army surpasses all other U.S. military branches in the number of suicides among its service members. In 2010 alone there were over 300 Army active duty and reserve troops who took their own lives. Yet the Army is not alone in experiencing this suicide epidemic. Last year, the Air Force reported 54 suicides, the Marines reported 37, and the Navy reported that over 30 sailors took their own lives. While the Marines and Navy actually experienced a decrease in their numbers, the Air Force faced a suicide rate not seen since 1994.
The Army suicide numbers for June come two weeks after President Obama announced that his administration would begin sending letters of condolence to the families of service members who commit suicide while deployed in a combat zone. In his formal statement the president explained his decision as a follow-up step to providing increased mental health care resources for U.S. service members. The change in policy is intended to help overcome the stigma of mental health treatment as a sign of weakness in the military. The administration’s new policy and effort to break this dangerous stigma serves as an important step forward in combating the current epidemic of suicides in the Armed Forces. Yet it must be part of a more holistic policy that addresses all service members who commit suicide, accurately tracks the number of suicides in both the Armed Forces and veteran communities, and provides more effective tools for military personnel to end the epidemic.
President Obama’s policy change provides a welcome opportunity to continue the dialogue about mental health care and stigmas, but it fails to take into account the majority of service members who commit suicide. Because the new policy covers suicides in combat zones, President Obama would write letters of condolence to only about 8 to 10 percent of the families who lose a service member to suicide.
Around 90 percent of all suicides reported by the Army actually occur here at home in the United States, rather than in combat zones. Last year 41 percent of Army service members who committed suicide had never been deployed. Another 41 percent of the over 300 suicides in 2010 had experienced a single deployment. Only about 7 percent of the Army suicides reported last year had a history of 3 or more deployments.
Another important element of the holistic approach to combating the suicide epidemic is the need for accurate reporting of service members and veterans who take their own lives. While the Army releases information monthly on the number of suicides among active and reserve duty service members, similar data from the other Armed Forces is less well known. Throughout the military there is no common tracking system that adequately reports on the number of suicides.
The number of current service members who take their own lives is unacceptably high, but experts believe that the number of veterans who commit suicide is even worse. In 2009 the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) estimated that 1 in 5 people who committed suicide in the United States was a veteran. This is an important number in understanding the mental health of OEF/OIF-era veterans, but the numbers are likely higher. The VA lacks any solid public data on number of young veterans who take their own lives.
In order to confront the suicide epidemic, troops and separating service members must be given the right tools. In its 2011 Policy Agenda, IAVA outlines its recommendations for preventing troop and veteran suicides. Among those recommendations targeted at the executive branch are proposals to standardize suicide prevention programs across the military, improve mental health screening for returning service members, and integrate robust mental health awareness and suicide prevention training in officer and enlisted education systems. These changes would provide service members both in the United States and deployed in combat zones with the help they need and the right tools to stop this epidemic.
President Obama’s new policy on letters of condolence is good step forward in addressing the stigma in the military community associated with mental health treatment. However, more can and should to be done to provide the right kind of care and support to U.S. service members, veterans, and their families through a holistic approach toward prevention.
To learn more about IAVA’s response to President Obama’s new policy and other IAVA statements on military and veteran suicide, please click here.
Laura Smith is a Summer Research Intern at IAVA in Washington, D.C. She just received her M.A. from the Graduate School of Public & International Affairs at the University of Pittsburgh. Laura is the proud sister of two Navy officers and the daughter of a Navy veteran. Follow her on Twitter at @LKSinDC.
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