Active Military’s Highest Suicide Rate is in the National Guard
More than 78,000 veterans died by suicide between 2005 and 2017, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Veteran suicide deaths rose from 5,787 in 2005 to 6,139 in 2017. Within the active military, the National Guard, has the highest rate of any branch, according to the most recent Department of Defense Annual Suicide Report. This is occurring against a backdrop of rising suicides among all Americans.
From CY 2013 to 2018, the suicide rate for the Active Component increased from 18.5 to 24.8 suicides per 100,000 Service members. This increase was attributable to small increases in the number of suicide deaths across all Services. The suicide rates of the Reserve and National Guard remained steady across this same timeframe. The CY 2018 suicide rate for the Reserve, across Services and regardless of duty status, was 22.9 suicides per 100,000 Reservists. For the National Guard, the suicide rate, across Services and regardless of duty status, was 30.6 suicides per 100,000 members of the National Guard. Serving in the Guard is unlike other military service. Guard members do not live on bases. Most are part-time, typically attending monthly weekend drills and two weeks of training in the summer, leaving them isolated from military leaders and empathetic peers.
Service members who died by suicide were primarily enlisted, less than 30 years of age, male, and died by firearm, regardless of Component. In CY 2018, the distribution of suicide deaths by demographic and military factors reflected the profile of the Total Force.2 Decedents were primarily enlisted, male, and less than 30 years of age, regardless of Component; this demographic makes up 46% of the military population, but about 60% of military suicide decedents. Specifically, the greatest proportion of suicide decedents were junior enlisted (E1- E4: ranging from 46.8% to 60.5% of those who died by suicide across Components), less than 30 years old (ranging from 65.2% to 72.8% of those who died by suicide), and male (ranging from 90.1% to 93.5% of those who died by suicide), depending on Component (i.e., Active Component, Reserve, or National Guard). Most Service members died by firearm (ranging from 60.0% to 69.6% of those who died by suicide, across Components).
In response to rising suicide rates in the DoD, a congressionally-mandated Task Force was established in 2009 to study the issue of suicide in the U.S. military across all branches of Service and to present their findings and recommendations to the Secretary of Defense. In August 2010, the DoD Task Force on the Prevention of Suicide by Members of the Armed Forces published a report on how the DoD could more effectively prevent suicide. One of the Task Force’s first recommendations was the development of an office within the Office of the Secretary of Defense to provide policy standardization and centralized data surveillance for suicide prevention. In 2012, the Defense Suicide Prevention Office (DSPO) was established as a direct result of this recommendation. DSPO advances holistic, data-driven suicide prevention in our military community through policy, oversight, and engagement to positively impact individual beliefs and behaviors, as well as instill systemic culture change. DSPO actively engages and partners with the Military Services, other governmental agencies, non-profit organizations, and the broader community to support Service members and foster a climate that reduces stigma and promotes help-seeking.
In an additional response to the rising suicide rates, The United States Senate passed a landmark legislation addressing veterans mental health and suicide prevention. The Commander John Scott Hannon Veterans Mental Health Care Improvement Act, or S.785, was one of the first bills unanimously passed out of the Committee on Veterans’ Affairs in January following the appointment of Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., as committee chairman.
The DoD is deeply committed to ensuring the health, safety, and well-being of our Service members and their families. The Department recognizes the importance of educating both our Service members and their families on suicide risk factors, as well as on ways to promote healthy environments and wellness, and reduce the overall risk factors for suicide, such as relationship issues and periods of transition. The Department is also focused on reducing barriers to care and the associated perceived stigma, and increasing help-seeking, among our military community. Moving forward, the Department will continue to fully implement and evaluate a comprehensive, multi-faceted public health approach to suicide prevention, as well as pilot new evidence informed practices gathered from the ever-evolving science on suicide prevention, to prevent suicides among our Service members and military families.
The Veterans and Military Crisis Line is a toll-free, confidential resource, with support 24/7, that connects Veterans, Service members, National Guard and Reserve, and their family members with qualified, caring responders.
The Veterans and Military Crisis Line, text-messaging service, and online chat provide free VA support for all Service members, including members of the National Guard and Reserve, and all Veterans, even if they are not registered with VA or enrolled in VA health care. All Service members, including members of the National Guard and Reserve, along with their loved ones can call 1-800-273-8255 and Press 1, chat online at https://www.veteranscrisisline.net/get-help/chat, or send a text message to 838255. If you, or anyone you know, are experiencing thoughts of suicide, please reach out for help immediately.
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About the author
Justin Fisher is a currently serving with the Arkansas Army National Guard. His career has expanded two decades and has three deployments. He holds a Bachelor’s in Arts in Communications and hosts a weekly podcast featuring candid interviews with members of the military.