The suicide rate among active-duty U.S. military personnel dropped in 2013 to roughly the same rate as the civilian population adjusted for similar demographics, according to a new Pentagon report.
The 2013 Defense Department Suicide Event Report shows the suicide rate for troops on active duty in 2013 was 18.7 per 100,000 population, down from the 2012 rate of 22.7 per 100,000.
The rates for the individual services per 100,000 according to the report, were 23 for the Army, 23.1 for the Marine Corps, 14.4 for the Air Force and 13.4 for the Navy.
The rate for civilians of the same age and socio-economic status as those who serve in the military is 18.8 per 100,000, according to Army and National Institutes of Mental Health calculations.
The Pentagon in 2013 changed its methodology for calculating suicide rates, basing the data on which component the deceased service members belonged to — active duty, National Guard or Reserve. The new methodology was used to produce the 2012 DoD Suicide Event Report as well as the 2013 report released Friday, allowing for an apples-to-apples comparison.
"In calculating the suicide event rate, DoD includes all service members. ... Doing so provides a more holistic view of the challenge suicide presents to leaders at all levels," the report notes.
But what likely is to be seen as good news by active component military leaders was not matched for the Guard and reserve components, whose suicide rates remain significantly higher than civilian rates. In 2013, the rate among reservists was 23.4 per 100,000, and among National Guardsmen, 28.9 per 100,000. These rates reflect all members of the Guard and Reserve, regardless of whether the deaths occurred while the service members were activated or in drilling status.
The Pentagon previously published the suicide statistics for 2013 in July 2014, but the new report is a detailed analysis of the active-duty deaths that provides insight into who attempts suicide or completes it.
The information is used largely to help senior leaders understand the scope of the problem and help the Pentagon steer its suicide prevention and mental health programs.
According to the report, 259 troops on active-duty status died by suicide in 2013, down from a record 319 in 2012, including 115 soldiers, 42 sailors, 43 airmen and 45 Marines.
During the same time, 220 members of the Selected Reserve and Guard (87 and 133, respectively), died by suicide, up from 203 in 2012.
In 2013, young white enlisted males ages 17 to 24 were at highest risk for dying by suicide. More than 90 percent of those who completed suicide were male, 75 percent were Caucasian and 42 percent were 17 to 24 years old.
Two-thirds had deployed — a change from previous years when fewer than half those who died by suicide had deployed. Still, in 2013, just 15 percent of those who died by suicide had seen direct combat, according to the report.
Nearly two-thirds had seen a doctor within three months before taking their own lives but fewer than half had a mental health diagnosis and fewer than a third telegraphed any plans to hurt themselves, according to the report.
More than half were married and had access to a firearm at home.
Twenty-two service members were prescribed multiple medications at the time of their deaths, and 12 had a diagnosed brain injury.
In addition to analyzing completed suicides, the 124-page report also examines 1,800 reported instances of suicide attempts, providing valuable information that has helped guide mental health and wellness programs in the past year.
In 2014, the services embraced policies that allow commanders to discuss access to firearms with at-risk personnel and provide for the voluntary surrender of any weapons if the service member requests it, and they have promoted drug "take back days" at military pharmacies to decrease the number of prescription medications lying around barracks and homes that could be used in a suicide attempt.
In 2013, 54 percent of suicide attempts involved drugs, with 41 percent involving prescription medications, according to the report.
The Defense Department this week released the number of suspected or confirmed suicides among personnel on active duty for 2014 — 288.
According to the preliminary data, which Pentagon officials caution will change as more is learned about the individual deaths, the Army had 135 suicides; the Marine Corps, 35; the Navy, 58; and the Air Force, 60.
Defense Department spokeswoman Laura Seal said the data indicates that military suicides are "on track to be about the same as 2013."
She also said other statistics indicate that service members are pursuing "help-seeking behaviors" in greater numbers, to include calling help lines at greater rates and making more mental health appointments — a change Pentagon officials find "encouraging," she said.
"The department takes suicide prevention very seriously," Seal said. "We are deeply concerned about suicide in the military and believe it is one of the most urgent problems facing the department."
Those who need help or family and friends of those in a mental health crisis can talk to trained counselors via the toll-free Military Crisis Line, 800-273-8255.
Patricia Kime is a senior writer covering military and veterans health care, medicine and personnel issues.