Editor’s note: This report contains discussion of suicide. Troops, veterans and family members experiencing suicidal thoughts can call the 24-hour Suicide and Crisis Lifeline at 988 or 1-800-273-8255, text 838255 or visit VeteransCrisisLine.net.
There was a small uptick in active duty troop suicides in 2022, the latest Defense Department data shows, with small drops in suicides among Reserve and National Guard members. The overall trend of military suicide, meanwhile, has remained roughly the same over the past decade.
Since the department began tracking numbers in 2011, both the active and reserve component suicide rates have hovered around 20 per 100,000, according to the latest annual Pentagon suicide report released Thursday.
The rates have held steady in the reserve component and increased slightly in the active rank-and-file despite a complete revamping of suicide prevention and mental health infrastructure in the military since 2011.
“The challenge is that, you know, a lot of cultural change and a lot of the recommendations and the practices that we’ve been implementing, they do just take some time to take root,” Beth Foster, the Pentagon’s executive director for force resiliency, told Military Times during a briefing.
The active duty suicide rate crept up 3% in 2022, but dropped 12% in the Reserve and 18% in the Guard. The rate among military spouses and children also dropped 16%. By the numbers, the overall number of deaths dropped to 492 from 524.
“While we are cautiously encouraged by some of these numbers, we need to see sustained, long-term changes in the trend to know if we’re truly making progress,” Liz Clark, the director of the Defense Suicide Prevention Office, told reporters.
Earlier this year, an independent committee published its review of DoD’s suicide prevention programs, coming back with some substantial recommendations on firearms, which account for nearly 70% of suicides across services and components.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin in February stood up a study group to consider implementing its many recommendations. In September, the Pentagon announced a host of initiatives to increase awareness of and access to mental health resources, as well as firearms safety education.
But the department has stopped short of implementing some of the review committee’s most aggressive recommendations, including standardizing firearms purchasing rules on military bases, rather than following local statutes.
The committee recommended raising the minimum purchase age to 25, a seven-day waiting period for the firearm and another four days for ammunition, and maintaining a registry of all personally-owned firearms kept in base housing.
The department wants more data before it implements a change like that, Foster said.
“So, what we need to better understand is, is if we put those restrictions in place at our military installations, is that going to have a demonstrable difference?” she said, noting that troops could go off-base instead.
DoD will need Congress’s help to implement another big recommendation, which is for commanders to be able to keep track of what personnel in their respective units own firearms.
“We heard stories from military leaders, senior NCOs, saying, in essence, ‘I’m not allowed to ask or sort of keep track of who are my most vulnerable and highest risk service members,’” Craig Bryan, an Air Force veteran and clinical psychologist at Ohio State University, told reporters during a February briefing on the committee’s findings.
“When we lose service members in our units to firearm suicide, there’s often this sense that we could have done more ― we could have gotten involved, we could have helped them to secure and lock up their firearms, more safely, which could have potentially prevented those suicides.”
While DoD’s is working on better safe firearm storage education, Foster said, they are also leaning on Congress for help in changing the law.
“Now that the secretary has made the announcement and decision about what recommendations we’ll be moving forward with, we anticipate that those conversations will only pick up,” she said.
Meghann Myers is the Pentagon bureau chief at Military Times. She covers operations, policy, personnel, leadership and other issues affecting service members.