In 2012, the U.S. military hit a record for the number of suicides among troops on active duty — 319 — since the Pentagon began closely tracking the numbers in 2001.
Preliminary Pentagon figures issued early this year indicated that figure dropped in 2013 to 261.
But no one outside the Defense Department knows for sure.
That’s because as of July 17, DoD has not released any official suicide data for the fourth quarter of 2013. Neither has it published suicide data for the first two quarters of this year.
The data has been further obscured in the wake of a Pentagon decision last year to be the sole source of the information, instead of the individual services, as well as a move by the Defense Suicide Prevention Office to redefine the methodology for calculating rates and exclude previously counted suicides among mobilized National Guard and reserve troops.
For example, an Army news release in February said that in 2013, the service saw 125 suicides in the active-duty force, 117 in the Army National Guard and 59 in the Army Reserve. The release also noted that in 2012, there were 165 suicides in the active-duty force, 110 in the Army National Guard and 50 in the Army Reserve.
But an end-of-year report for 2012 also issued by the Army said the service had 182 active-duty suicides and 143 potential “not on active duty suicides” — the same total, 325, but not by the same accounting. That report eliminated an entire group of people — full-time Army Guard and Reserve members with access to the same programs and health care as active-duty personnel, placing them instead with demobilized Guard and reserve members.
The DSPO also adjusted the way DoD calculates suicide rates. Until 2013, rates were based on the number of troops serving on active duty and an estimate of the number of activated Guard and reserve members. The new calculations are based on the actual figures.
DSPO Director Jacqueline Garrick declined to speak with Military Times about the changes until 2013 fourth-quarter data is released.
Pentagon spokesman Army Maj. James Brindle said that is expected “in the coming weeks.”
Brindle noted that while DoD previously has published end-of-year totals covering the services, this is the first year that defense officials are responsible for quarterly reports.
“The intent of the quarterly report is to provide current information and increase transparency. Every effort is being made to ensure the data is verified before the report is released,” Brindle said.
The report is expected to contain the 2013 fourth-quarter numbers for the four DoD services and the National Guard and reserve components, preliminary totals for the entire year and the rate.
That rate is expected to be higher than in previous years because DSPO is using a new formula to determine the rate per 100,000 — a measure used to compare the military to the general population.
Army Lt. Gen. Michael Linnington, military deputy to the undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness, told USA Today in April that the new calculations, which incorporate the actual number of Guard and reserve members on active duty instead of estimates, are more accurate than previously reported rates.
“It wasn’t precise. Having a better picture of what’s going on ... helps better align and focus the efforts” to reduce suicide, Linnington said.
By the new calculations, rates of suicide have been higher — between several tenths of a percent to 1 percent or more — than previously reported starting in 2006.
For example, under the old calculations, the 2012 suicide rate per 100,000 was 21.8. Under the new methodology, it was 22.7.
The civilian rate, adjusted for demographics similar to those who serve in the military, is 18.8 per 100,000, according to calculations by the Army and the National Institutes of Mental Health.
Suicide prevention advocates say accurate numbers — and their public release — are important because they not only quantify the problem but also further understanding of suicide and the need for mental health treatment.
“There are still those who think any time you talk about numbers, you increase the likelihood of suicide, but that has proven to be false. The figures need to be presented and discussed in a way that raises awareness and encourages those who need help to get it,” said Kevin Briggs, an Army veteran and retired California Highway Patrol officer whose beat was the Golden Gate Bridge, the world’s second most popular bridge for suicide.
“The numbers are needed because if they are presented in a positive way — here’s what the figures are, here’s what we’re doing to affect them — we can help those who desperately need it,” said Kevin Hines, a suicide prevention activist who has spoken to troops about his jump and survival from the Golden Gate Bridge in 2000.
Since DoD assumed responsibility for releasing all military suicide numbers, only the Navy and Marine Corps continue to publish data online. So far this year, 35 active-duty sailors and six Navy Reserve members have died by suicide, along with 17 active-duty Marines and seven Marine Corps Forces Reserve members.
The Army has stopped publishing monthly reports. The Air Force has never published its reports online, choosing to release them to the media by request.
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