Military suicides spike by almost 20 per cent in COVID-19 era
Military suicides have increased by as much as 20 per cent this year compared to the corresponding period in 2019, and some incidents of violent behaviour have spiked as service members struggle under COVID-19, war-zone deployments, national disasters and civil unrest.
While the data is incomplete and causes of suicide are complex, Army and Air Force officials say they believe the pandemic is adding stress to an already strained force.
And senior Army leaders – who say they’ve seen about a 30 per cent jump in active duty suicides so far this year – told The Associated Press that they are looking at shortening combat deployments. Such a move would be part of a broader effort to make the well-being of soldiers and their families the Army’s top priority, overtaking combat readiness and weapons modernization.
The Pentagon refused to provide 2020 data or discuss the issue, but Army officials said discussions in Defense Department briefings indicate there has been roughly a 20 per cent jump in overall military suicides this year. The numbers vary by service. The active Army’s 30 per cent spike from 88 last year to 114 this year – pushes the total up because it’s the largest service. The Army Guard is up about 10 per cent going from 7–8 last year to 86 this year. The Navy total is believed to be lower this year.
Army leaders say they can’t directly pin the increase on the virus, but the timing coincides.
“I can’t say scientifically, but what I can say is – I can read a chart and a graph, and the numbers have gone up in behavioural health-related issues,” Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy said in an AP interview.
Pointing to increases in Army suicides, murders and other violent behaviour, he added, “We cannot say definitively it is because of COVID. But there is a direct correlation from when COVID started, the numbers actually went up.”
Preliminary data for the first three months of 2020 show an overall dip in military suicides across the active duty and reserves, compared to the same time last year. Those early numbers, fuelled by declines in Navy and Air Force deaths, gave hope to military leaders who have long struggled to cut suicide rates. But in the spring, the numbers ticked up.
“COVID adds stress,” said Gen Charles Brown, the Air Force chief, in public remarks. “From a suicide perspective, we are on a path to be as bad as last year. And that’s not just an Air Force problem, this is a national problem because COVID adds some additional stressors – a fear of the unknown for certain folks.”
The active duty Air Force and reserves had 98 suicides as of September 15, unchanged from the same period last year. But last year was the worst in three decades for active duty Air Force suicides. Officials had hoped the decline early in the year would continue.
Navy and Marine officials refused to discuss the subject.
It’s unclear how the military suicide rate this year compares with the civilian rate. The most recent civilian suicide data is from 2018.