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US military suicides drop as leaders push mental health programs

WASHINGTON (AP) — Suicides in the U.S. military on active duty have declined over the past 18 months, due to steep declines in the Air Force and Marine Corps last year and a similar decline among Army soldiers in the first six months of this year, according to a new Pentagon report and preliminary data for 2022.

The numbers show a dramatic reversal of what has been a fairly steady increase in recent years.

The change follows increased attention from senior military leaders and a series of new programs aimed at addressing what has been a persistent problem across all services, although it is unclear what impact either programs had or whether pandemic-related restrictions played a role in the decline.

READ MORE: US military aims to tackle mental health as suicides rise

The Department of Defense is still grappling with widespread shortages of mental health personnel and an uneasy push to reduce the stigma of seeking help. But the figures give a glimmer of hope that some of the recent changes – which range from required counseling visits to education to stress relief and recreational outings – could work.

According to the data, the number of suicides in the Air Force and Marine Corp fell more than 30% in 2021 compared to 2020, and the Navy saw a 10% drop. The military saw a similar 30% decline in the first six months of this year, compared to the same period last year.

The Army’s decline comes following a spate of suicides at Army bases last year, including in Alaska, which fueled a slight increase in deaths from 2020. The Army was the only military service to have more suicides in 2021 than in 2020 – 176 from 174. But it’s also the only service that’s seen a drop this year.

The Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps all had slightly more suicides in the first six months of 2022 than in the same period last year, preliminary Pentagon data shows. . It is unclear whether the downward trend will continue until the end of this year.

According to Department of Defense data, there were 328 suicides by active duty members in 2021, compared to 384 in 2020. In the first six months of 2021, there were 173 suicides, compared to 158 in this time this year. This drop is entirely due to the army, which had 101 in the first half of 2021 and 69 during this period this year.

Both the National Guard and the reserves saw a slight drop in suicides, from 121 in 2020 to 119 in 2021. And there were also fewer guard deaths in the first half of 2022, compared to last year. Suicides on reservations increased from 29 to 36.

The Guard has worked over the past year to reduce suicides through awareness and other changes, including policies to de-stigmatize getting mental health help and a program that provides locks guns to service members who keep guns at home, said Army Maj. Gen. Eric Little, chief of Guard manpower and personnel.

Little said that in some cases, if service members report that they seek advice, it may affect their security clearance or eligibility to fly. He said officials were working to change policies.

Suicide has long been a problem in the US military, and its causes are complex and poorly understood. Behavioral research has linked military suicides to a range of personal issues, including finances and marital stress.

The Pentagon report released on Thursday said “intimate relationship issues in the past year were the most commonly identified interpersonal stressor” in suicides and attempted suicides. And Little said relationship stress continues to be a top risk factor for Custody, along with job stress, substance abuse and sexual abuse.

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Defense leaders noted that the complexity of the causes makes it difficult to address them, as there is no single cure.

Yvette Bourcicot, the Army’s acting assistant secretary for manpower, told the AP on Thursday that while personnel shortages continue, the service is “getting creative” in using other personnel. such as chaplains and health and fitness trainers to fill in the gaps.

“I think the attention we’re giving to it is hopefully — we’re cautiously optimistic — which translates into a downward trend,” Bourcicot said. She also noted that base commanders tailor programs to their forces.

For example, Lt. Gen. Douglas Sims, in his former post as commanding officer at Fort Riley, Kansas, began asking soldiers on the base to meet with an advisor once a year.

“I can’t order anyone to speak to an adviser,” he said earlier this year, just before he left. “But I can tell you, listen, you have to sit in a room for 30 to 60 minutes. And there happens to be a counselor in the same room.

All but about 10 of the 14,000 soldiers, he said, used the time to speak with the adviser.

The trends of those dying by suicide, however, have been consistent.

Pentagon officials said they were working to hire 2,000 additional mental health personnel and hoped to have the first 400 on board in the coming months.

According to the Pentagon report, they are overwhelmingly white men, military personnel under 30 years of age. In 2021, approximately 94% of military suicides were male. And they most often used a firearm – usually a personal weapon, not a military firearm. The second most common method was hanging or asphyxiation.

The report said the suicide rate – which is the number of deaths per 100,000 military personnel – has gradually increased since 2011 and is similar to that of the US population, when adjusted for age and sex.

Data on military spouses and dependents for the 2020 calendar year has also been released. Spousal suicides were split almost evenly by gender and nearly 80% were under 40 years of age. Again, most – 60% – used a firearm. Military dependents who die by suicide were most often male and under the age of 18.

Suicide attempts, on the other hand, most often involved poisoning. which includes drugs and alcohol. The report says more than 1,200 people have attempted suicide and 67 have attempted two or more times.

Associated Press writer Tara Copp contributed to this report.

For those suffering from depression and suicidal ideation, or if someone you know is struggling, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or find them online at https://suicidepreventionlifeline .org.

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