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The number of military suicides declined significantly in 2013, a relief to the services after record and near-record levels in 2012.
But changes in suicide rates — a per capita measure — are unclear. And that information is vital to understanding the scope of the problem in a population that is dwindling through force reductions.
Pentagon data provided to Military Times show 296 suicides among active-duty troops and reserve or National Guard members on active duty in 2013, down 15.7 percent from the 2012 total of 351.
Coming off a record-setting year in 2012, the Navy had the biggest drop, nearly 22 percent, from 59 to 46 sailor deaths. The Army also saw a large decline, down nearly 19 percent from 185 suicides in 2012 to 150 last year.
The Air Force and Marine Corps both had near-record years in 2012; in 2013 they also experienced declines, with 55 airmen dying by suicide in 2013, down from 59 in 2012, and 45 Marines committing suicide in 2013, down from 48 the year before.
Military officials said they are not ready to “declare success,” but the lower numbers may indicate programs such as Comprehensive Soldier Fitness resiliency training and campaigns to reduce the stigma of seeking mental health treatment may be paying off.
“We’re seeing positive signs and the trend is down, though we’re far, far away from doing any kind of end-zone dance or spiking the football or claiming we have any total solution to suicide,” said Rear Adm. Sean Buck, director of the 21st Century Sailor program under the chief of naval personnel.
“It could indicate resiliency efforts are starting to take hold,” said Army spokesman Paul Prince. “Ultimately, the Army acknowledges there is more work to do.”
The reasons why service members commit suicide remain varied and complex.
The Pentagon often contends that its trends reflect society as a whole — a statement that needs accurate numbers and rate information to support it.
But the task of maintaining and calculating military suicide data appears to be a continuing challenge for the Pentagon and services. Each service keeps its own statistics and often publishes information that omits reserve personnel on active duty or per capita rates based on their own calculations.
The discrepancies make it difficult to determine how troops are faring across the services or compared with the U.S. population.
In 2011, the most recent year for which the Defense Department has published an overall suicide rate, the figure was 17.6 per 100,000 troops.
The Army does not publish its rates, but the 2011 DoD report put it at 22.2 per 100,000 soldiers. The Marine Corps rate that same year was 14.4 per 100,000.
The Navy and Air Force have published more recent data. Last year, the Navy reported a suicide rate of 12.4 per 100,000 sailors, down from 16.6 in 2012. The Air Force reported a rate of 15 per 100,000 last year, down from 15.6 percent in 2012.
The 2010 rate for the U.S. population, with demographics adjusted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to mirror the military population, was 22 per 100,000.
The rate for the general population — the one often cited by Pentagon officials when comparing the military with the U.S. population — was 25 per 100,000 in 2010.
But while the services seem to be making progress, the military suicide rate is still significantly higher than in 2001, when it was 10.3 per 100,000 troops.
The services have made suicide prevention a priority, investing in stress-management initiatives, behavioral health providers, education and training. And officials say on the whole, military personnel are more resilient and even-keeled than often is reported.
Not just numbers
“We get worried when we just get asked about the numbers,” said Col. John Forbes, the Air Force’s director of psychological health. “We want to talk about the resilience of our service members and that the military can contribute to a national dialogue on the issue. Most people get over their problems and do very well. That’s the success story.”
“One suicide is one too many,” said Adam Walsh, section head of the Marine Corps’ community counseling and prevention programs. “We want to focus on peer-to peer prevention, Never Leave a Marine Behind, the fact that we’ve gained almost 1,000 [counselors, including family advocacy, substance abuse, chaplains and behavioral health providers] ... and on educating” on awareness and prevention.
DoD should have a clearer picture of its tragic year in 2012 when it finalizes its Suicide Event Report for that year. The report is a sweeping assessment of actual and attempted suicides for the year.
That report, which has been published since 2008 and was once released shortly after the previous year’s end, has been issued progressively later each year since.
A Pentagon spokeswoman said Feb. 6 that the 2012 report is still being reviewed and is not ready for release.
While the active-duty data is encouraging, the reserve components show ongoing struggles. DoD data show 174 drilling reservists died by suicide last year, up from 162 in 2012.
The 2013 numbers are tentative, pending completion of investigations.
Officials say those who need help, or family and friends of those in crisis, can call the toll-free Military Crisis Line, 800-273-8255.