A drop in the pace of military suicides in the first half of 2013 is welcome news for the Defense Department, but officials are not ready to call the decline a trend, given that 2012 saw the worst year for suicide since the military began closely tracking the figures.
Between January and early July, 157 active-duty and mobilized National Guard and reserve troops died by suicide, according to data provided by the services.
Last year, for the same period, 192 died by their own hands — a rate of more than one a day.
“At this point, we are trending below both suicide and suicide attempts from the previous year, although many are still pending cases,” DoD Suicide Prevention Office Director Jackie Garrick told Military Times. “We hope it is a measure that we are getting our message out and people are seeking help.”
Garrick said DoD is working to understand the nuances of risk for suicide in military personnel and factors that may protect troops from taking their own lives.
Most service members who die by suicide are young, white, male and never deployed, according to DoD’s Suicide Event reports for the last three years.
Forty-seven percent experienced a failed intimate relationship before they died, and 37 percent faced work-related or legal problems in the months before their deaths.
“With this data we are able to hone our messaging efforts, how we are training personnel and conveying the information,” Garrick said.
The office is currently reviewing more than 900 initiatives across the services and DoD that address mental health and suicide prevention, assessing them for duplication and effectiveness.
It is working to improve reporting on suicides and attempts, seeking uniformity for the data across the services and changing how rates are calculated.
The military suicide rate is hard to determine because the number of personnel serving is in constant fluctuation and Guard and reserve members often shift on and off active duty, making it difficult to gauge the size of the population.
Suicide is not only a problem for DoD; the Veterans Affairs Department earlier this year estimated that roughly 22 veterans commit suicide each day.
DoD and VA have combined some prevention and treatment efforts, promoting the Military/Veterans Crisis Line and programs to ease the stress of transitioning between active duty and veteran status.
In June, the departments also published clinical practice guidelines for physicians to understand the differences between at-risk troops and civilians.
According to the guidance, the differences between the two populations could put patients at further risk because at-risk military personnel tend to be younger males, while older, white males face a higher risk across the general population.
Nearly a third of troops who served in Iraq and Afghanistan have considered suicide, and 45 percent know a fellow post-9/11 veteran who tried to commit suicide, according to a survey of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America members published July 31.
More than 40 percent said they didn’t seek treatment for mental health conditions — often a contributing factor in suicide — for fear of damaging their careers, according to the report.
“On issues critical to veterans — including mental health care and disability claims — it’s clear that [these veterans] deserve better,” said Derek Bennett, IAVA chief of staff.
The active-duty figures do not include non-activated Guard and reserve troops. In the first six months of this year, 81 soldiers, two sailors and seven airmen died by suicide while on inactive status, according to the services.
The Marine Corps includes reserve members in its monthly totals.