Military Suicides Hit a Record High in 2018, Pentagon Report Says, Despite Prevention Efforts

A shadow of a U.S soldier from 1-320 Field Artillery Regiment, 2nd Brigade Combat, 101st Airborne Division is seen on the ground during a walking patrol near the village of Khesrow Olia in Arghandab Valley of Kandahar Province. The Pentagon on Thursday released its annual suicide report for 2018, raising concern over why the suicide rate among the armed forces continues to surge in recent years, despite efforts at prevention. BEHROUZ MEHRI/Getty

As local and federal authorities launch investigations into the Navy aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush after a string of recent suicides last week, the Pentagon on Thursday released its annual suicide report for 2018, raising concern over why the suicide rate among the armed forces continues to rise despite efforts at prevention.

A total of 541 active duty, reserve, and National Guard troops died by suicide in 2018. Rates among the active-duty component increased over the last five years while statistics among National Guard forces and reserves remain consistent over the same time frame, the report said. Between 2013 and 2018, the suicide rate within the active-duty ranks increased from 18.5 to 24.8 suicides per 100 thousand service members.

Among the active and reserve components, 187 Army soldiers, 77 Marines, 79 Navy sailors, 63 airmen. The Army National Guard experienced 118 while the Air National Guard lost 17, according to the Defense Department Suicide Event Report. (You can read the report at the bottom of this article).

The rate of suicide among the U.S. military was roughly in lockstep when compared to the American population. Suicide was most prevalent among service members in the male enlisted ranks under the age of 30 regardless of component. The primary method was by firearm, the report said.

The report indicates that the U.S. Navy experienced a "statistically significant increase" in suicide rates between 2013 and 2018. While other services did not show a statistical uptick, the overall rise of suicides in the active-duty component is attributable to small hikes in the number of suicide deaths in 2018 across the services.

The report comes three days after news reports turned its attention to the USS George H.W. Bush, a U.S. Navy carrier docked in Virginia after the crew suffered several suicides.

"My heart is broken," wrote Captain Sean Bailey, the commanding officer of the USS George H.W. Bush, on Monday when he announced in a Facebook post a batch of suicides among his crew.

"These deaths mark the third, fourth, and fifth crew member suicides in the last two years," wrote Bailey. "Now is the time to come together as a crew and as a family to grieve, to support each other, and to care for those in need."

The Pentagon also released on Thursday suicide statistics among military families for the first time as a part of the annual Suicide Event Report.

The report found 186 U.S. military family members took their own life in 2017. 123 were military spouses with 14 percent also serving in the military.

From the total, 63 were dependents between the ages of 12 and 23. Federal law defines a military dependent as a "minor and non-minor biological children, foster children, stepchildren, wards, pre-adoptive children and domestic partner children," according to the report.

Nearly 30 percent of the military spouses who took their own lives were male, and a little more than nine percent were female, the data shows.

The report included spouses and dependents of Reserve and National Guard members, "regardless of the duty status of the military sponsor."

Firearms were the leading method used in roughly half of the suicides among U.S. military families—54 percent of spouses, and 51 percent of dependents.

Current suicide prevention initiatives across the armed services broadly focus on addressing stress factors at multiple social levels while encouraging open dialogue about personal issues and resiliency. Educating both U.S. forces and their families on mental health programs and behavioral risk factors is a key element in suicide prevention.

In response to Thursday's 2018 suicide report, Marine Commandant General David H. Berger said everyone has a role to play in suicide prevention.

"We all have a role in suicide prevention: individual service members, unit leaders, families and mental health professionals. Every Marine and Sailor must work together to be engaged in each other's lives," said Berger in a statement to Newsweek.

"Just as we talk about physical fitness, marksmanship, training and education - Marines must also be comfortable discussing life's struggles, mental wellness and suicide. We must create a community where seeking help and assistance are simply normal, important decisions Marines and Sailors make," said Berger.

While suicide continues to be a persistent problem within the ranks of the U.S. military, the issue also stalks American veterans. Last week, the Department of Veterans Affairs altered how the agency calculates the average number of veteran suicides each day, reported Stars and Stripes, the U.S. military newspaper.

In the VA's annual National Veteran Suicide Prevention Report released on Friday, the daily veteran suicide average is down to 17 per day from the previous statistic of 20 per day.

Last year, the VA said the 20-per-day statistic was widely misunderstood as the number included service members on active duty; in the National Guard and Reserve components of the U.S. military and not just veterans. The new daily average of 17 per day stems from removing the additional service member categories and leaving individuals in a veteran status.

The annual National Veteran Suicide Prevention Report, which includes the most recent analysis of veteran suicide data from 2005 to 2017, found that more military veterans died by suicide in 2017 than the previous year. There were 6,139 veteran suicide deaths in 2017, an increase of 129 from 2016.

Male veterans between the ages of 18-34 experienced the highest rates of suicide while male veterans 55 and older experienced the highest count of suicide, according to the key data points from the report.

The rate of suicide among was 2.2 times higher among female veterans when compared with non-veteran adult women while the rate among male veterans was 1.3 times higher when compared with non-veteran adult men after accounting for differences in age among both categories.

The number of veteran suicides exceeded 6,000 each year from 2008 to 2017, with the average number of suicides per day surging from 86.6 in 2005 to 124.4 in 2017. Firearms were the method of suicide in more than 70 percent among male veterans and 43 percent among female veterans, the report shows.

Service members, veterans and their friends and family who need help can call the Military Crisis Line at 800-273-8255, press 1, for assistance, or text 838255. The Veterans Crisis Line is 800-273-8255.