Camp Lemonnier, Djibouti. (September 13, 2023): It is a heartbreaking reality. Suicide rates among active-duty military members are at an all-time high since 911 and have been increasing over the past five years at an alarming pace. In fact, some branches of the Armed Forces are experiencing the highest rate of suicides since before World War II. In this photo by Air Traffic Controller 2nd Class Nicholas Renard, servicemembers participate in Camp Lemonnier's Suicide Prevention Awareness Month activity, a 22 Push-Up Challenge to highlight the problem and to stop this senseless loss of precious life.
According to the Department of Defense, 519 servicemembers died by suicide in 2021 with young, enlisted male servicemembers at greatest risk. The Annual Report shows that the suicide rates for Active Component Service members have gradually increased since 2011 and that 202 dependents also died by suicide during this same period. The Army experienced the highest increase in suicides, losing forty-nine servicemembers in the first three months of 2023, compared to 37 a year ago.
Why are our servicemembers suffering such high suicide rates compared to civilians?
First, military life is difficult for servicemembers and their families who are stationed in foreign countries or deployed to combat zones. These service families experience loneliness and isolation while spending months, sometimes years, away from family and friends back home. Too often, we ask our troops to deal with unfamiliar locations while dealing with the stress and dangers of their daily duties. The pandemic exasperated this sense of isolation, especially so for service members who were held in quarantine.
According to suicide prevention specialists, successful families need a safe, supportive, and stable environment to thrive. This can be hard to come by for military families experiencing extreme change, such as sudden deployments or cross-country moves. Add to this the loss of a spouse’s income which further tightens family budgets. A Blue Star Families’ 2022 Military Family Lifestyle Survey found financial stress – such as their military pay and housing concerns – as two of the top five issues facing military families.
The Defense Department will focus on three key areas to tackle this problem; creating a supportive family environment, addressing the stigma associated with suicide as a barrier to help-seeking, and promoting a culture of gun safety.
The Department also intends to address harmful behaviors, including self-harm, by establishing a new, specialized prevention workforce designed to decrease the risk factors and increase certain protective factors at a community level to prevent suicide deaths.
Perhaps the most important part of this strategy is the one-on-one communication that results between troops during Suicide Prevention challenges like this one.