The Pentagon's suicide prevention office lacks clear guidance and authority to develop and execute effective programs, leaving a vacuum that the military services filled with their own, often inconsistent programs, a new Defense Department Inspector General report says.
The Defense Suicide Prevention Office, or DSPO, was established in 2011 to develop and implement suicide prevention policies, programs and surveillance across the force, with any eye toward promoting resilience, mental fitness and suicide awareness and prevention.
But from its inception, the office had a confusing governing structure and alignment of responsibilities under different committees within the office of the undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness, resulting in "less than effective DoD strategic oversight" that hampered implementation of suicide prevention programs, according to the report released Wednesday.
Investigators found that while DSPO has a strategic plan, it does not include guidance on measuring success, timelines for completing goals or resources required to achieve the office's objectives.
The strategic plan's shortfalls led to inconsistent approaches to suicide prevention among the services and failed to define a "unified direction for the future," investigators wrote.
"There was no evidence DSPO's strategic plan was a working document that was monitored and updated annually to ensure the organization's success," the report stated.
According to Pentagon data, 130 active-duty troops died by suicide from January through June this year, along with 89 reserve members and 56 National Guard members.
Last year, 273 active-duty personnel, 170 reservists and 91 Guardsmen took their own lives.
Military suicides rose steadily from 2006 to 2009 before leveling off for two years. They then increased sharply in 2012, peaking at a high of 321 active-duty, 192 reserve and 130 Guard deaths.
The IG report office noted that while a DoD instruction and training plan for suicide prevention was drafted in 2013, it was never published.
Investigators said this lapse led to a lack of a standardized approach to suicide prevention among the services and failure to integrate effective, proven practices into the programs that were offered.
Among the criticisms, however, the IG outlined a few bright spots in DoD's battle against suicide. Investigators praised the department for collaborating with the Veterans Affairs Department to promote the Military and Veterans Crisis Line, and for creating a suicide data repository as well as standardizing its suicide reporting methodology.
The IG also highlighted guidance issued by DoD that allows commanders to ask those thought to be at risk for suicide to voluntarily store their personal firearms.
Pentagon officials largely agreed with the IG's recommendations for improving the DSPO's effectiveness and said that suicide prevention is a "strategic priority."
The House Armed Services Committee's personnel panel plans to hold a hearing Thursday on DoD and service suicide prevention programs. Scheduled to testify are DSPO director Keita Franklin; Air Force Surgeon General Lt. Gen. Mark Ediger; Navy Rear Adm. (lower half) Ann Burkhardt, 21st Century Sailor Office; and Army Deputy Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. James McConville.