Military suicides grew in 2020 during COVID pandemic

The number of active-duty military deaths by suicide grew in 2020, a new report from the Pentagon shows.

All branches of the military recorded 377 suicides among active-duty service members in 2020, up from 348 in 2019, according to Department of Defense data.

In all services, there were 99 suicides in the last quarter of 2020 during the height of the pandemic. That compares to 100 in the same quarter of 2019.

The Air Force reported 81 suicides among active-duty members in 2020, down from 82 in 2019. The Air Force reserves reported 2 suicides, down one from all of 2019.

Air Force and military leaders have grappled with the problem for years. In 2019, Air Force leaders were alarmed enough by the numbers to order a one-day “tactical pause” at all levels including Wright-Patterson Air Force Base to address the problem.

“Suicide prevention is the responsibility of everyone,” said Dr. Tom Tirey, violence prevention integrator at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. “We at Wright-Patterson are committed to the ultimate goal of never losing another Airman to suicide. We are committed to fostering a culture that values and encourages help-seeking behavior and enhances individual competence and confidence in accessing appropriate helping resources as required.”

The DoD’s newest quarterly report shows 23 suicides among active-duty Air Force members in the fourth quarter of calendar year 2020, up from 22 in the same quarter of 2019.

Among Air Force Reserve members, there were two suicides in the fourth quarter of 2020, the same number as in the final quarter of 2019.

“One of my concerns here is COVID adds stress and we are, from a suicide perspective, we are on a path to be as bad as last year,” Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr. said at the Air Force Sergeants Association virtual conference last summer. “And it’s not just an Air Force problem. This is a national problem, because COVID actually adds some additional stressors, and I would say the fear of the unknown.”

“I’ll be honest with the collective, we’re struggling to figure out how to deal with this,” he also said.

The report cautions that the number of suicide deaths given are preliminary and subject to change, “as previously unknown cases are reported and some known cases are further investigated.” Pentagon spokesman John Kirby echoed that message Wednesday.

“The Department of Defense (DoD) is fully committed to preventing suicides in our military community — every death by suicide is a tragedy,” an introduction to the new report states. “The DoD recognizes the potential impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the well-being of our service members and families. We are closely monitoring potential impacts and taking proactive steps to mitigate those potential impacts.”

The report added: “During this time, we remain dedicated in our efforts to educate the force, support the force, and emphasize social connectedness.”

Karon Wolfe, suicide prevention coordinator at the Dayton VA, said the best first step for someone who is having thoughts of suicide is actually straightforward.

“It would be reach out –— to anyone,” Wolfe said Tuesday.

For anyone trying to help someone in a crisis, she said the first step should be calling either 911 or calling the crisis line (800-273-8255, available 24 hours a day.)

Another step would be getting the person in crisis to the nearest hospital as soon as possible.

“Be supportive,” she also said. “Listen more than you talk.”

How to get help

The National Suicide Prevention Hotline can be reached at 800-273-8255, 24 hours a day.

Those seeking help can also access online chat by texting 838255.

There are a number of options available to Wright-Patt Airmen. Numbers that those in crisis could call include: Military One Source, (937) 257-7272, or a military chaplain at (937) 257-7427. Also: People can contact the VA Crisis Center at (800) 273-8255, then press 1.

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