The rate of suicide among members of the military increased again last year, new statistics released by a Pentagon research project show, and have led the Air Force and other branches to seek ways to stop the climb.
Rates of suicide of service men and women have risen steadily over the last five years. As combat deaths have declined, suicide has become one of the leading causes of death among active duty members of every branch of the service, a government report shows.
The rate of suicides per 100,000 active service members increased from 18.5 in 2013 to 24.8 in 2018, a report released Thursday shows. The spike among active duty military is due to a rise in the suicide rate across nearly every branch of the military.
“As this report clearly indicates, suicide is a growing concern within the DoD (Department of Defense) and the Air Force…we must collectively own this problem as we work to care for those who may be suffering,” said Col. Michael E. Phillips, 88th Air Base Wing Vice Commander at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base.
September is national suicide awareness month and in an attempt to address rising rates, Air Force chief of staff Gen. David Goldfein ordered the wings to hold a “resilience tactical pause.” Goldfein gave the Air Force until Sept. 15 to conduct the “pause.”
At Wright-Patt the pause included people gathering in hundreds of small groups to discuss how to build stronger human connections, Phillips said.
“As leaders, we must not only acknowledge the problem, but empower our Airmen to help fix it, and that begins with fostering a culture that values and encourages help-seeking behaviors,” Phillips said. “We can each make a difference by helping Airmen understand they are not alone and positive support is available, and in a fashion that best meets the Airman’s needs.”
Of the 325 active duty service members who committed suicide in 2018, 93.5 percent were men and 6.5 percent were women, according to the Pentagon report. Exactly 60 percent of active duty troops used a firearm to commit suicide while another 28 percent took their lives by hanging or some form of asphyxiation, the report shows.
As of Aug. 6, there were 78 Airmen who had taken their own life so far this year, Chief Master Sgt. of the Air Force Kaleth Wright said in a widely circulated video. That is 28 people more than in the same period in 2018.
At 30.6 suicides per 100,000 troops, the National Guard has the highest rate of suicide in 2018 among each component of the military. Reserve forces had the lowest rate at 22.9, according to the report.
Among all U.S. residents ages 17 to 59 the rate was 18.2 deaths per 100,000 people in 2017, the latest year for which data is available.
The Pentagon recommends each branch deal with increased suicide rates through a “multi-faceted public health approach to target areas of greatest concern.” But, larger changes need to occur within the military to prevent more suicides, said Mark Landers, executive director of the Montgomery County Veterans Service Commission.
Despite recent efforts, a stigma still surrounds mental health in the nation’s armed forces, Landers said. The military needs to make it clear, Landers said, that troops won’t lose their jobs if they seek help for mental illness or suicidal thoughts.
“They’ve suffered in silence,” Landers said. “You’re afraid if you come forward you’ll be perceived as weak, as a non-deployable asset or as a potential problem for the military.”
Troops who stay silent about mental issues while serving will likely face trouble after leaving the military, Landers said. Veteran suicides have increased by 6.1 percent from 5,787 in 2005 to 6,139 in 2017, according to a Department of Veterans Affairs report released earlier this month.
Though more may need to be done to address the rising rate of suicide in the military, Phillips said service members can start with “one act of kindness” that has the potential to “save a life.”
“Ultimately, people don’t need special training to safely talk about suicide risk or show genuine concern for someone in crisis. It is these human connections, understanding our fellow Airmen and knowing the signs of trouble and then sticking with them to get the help they need,” Phillips said. “That is a start, and will help us curtail this trend and create a more resilient force.”
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