WASHINGTON – Military suicides have increased by as much as 20% this year compared with the same period in 2019, and some incidents of violent behavior 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% jump in active duty suicides so far this year — said 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 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 up to a 20% jump in overall military suicides this year. The numbers vary by service. The active Army's 30% 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%, going from 78 last year to 86 this year. The Navy total is believed to be lower.
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 behavioral health related issues," Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy said.
Pointing to increases in Army suicides, murders and other violence, 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 active duty and reserves compared with the same time last year. Those early numbers, fueled 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 Sept. 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.
Civilian suicide rates have risen in recent years, but 2020 data isn't available, so it's difficult to compare with the military. A Pentagon report on 2018 suicides said the military rate was roughly equivalent to that of the U.S. general population, after adjusting for the fact that the military is more heavily male and younger than the civilian population. The 2018 rate for active duty military was 24.8 per 100,000, while the overall civilian rate that year was 14.2, but the rate for younger civilian men ranged from 22.7 to 27.7 per 100,000, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.
James Helis, director of the Army's resilience programs, said virus-related isolation, financial disruptions, remote schooling and loss of child care all at the same time has strained troops and families.
"We know that the measures we took to mitigate and prevent the spread of COVID could amplify some of the factors that could lead to suicide," said Helis.