The Pentagon will release a new annual report on active-duty military suicides this year -- one that will provide complete data for 2018 as well as a first-ever look at suicides among military family members.
In a hearing before the House Oversight and Reform national security subcommittee Wednesday, Navy Capt. Mike Colston, the Defense Department's mental health director, and Defense Suicide Prevention Office Director Karin Orvis said the new report will allow for more timely publication of suicide rates, which are a more accurate measure of trends than yearly tallies.
Currently, the DoD publishes quarterly reports of the number of deaths in the previous three months, with the year-end data included in the fourth-quarter report for the calendar year.
It also publishes the Department of Defense Suicide Event Report, or DoDSER, an in-depth look at each suicide and suicide attempt for the year, including rates, methods, circumstances, prior medical history and more. It is usually published 18 months to two years after the subject year.
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But the DoD has not published the final figures or the rates for 2018 and declined to provide them earlier this month when asked by Military.com. Instead, they will be included in the new report, called the Annual Suicide Report, expected this summer, officials said.
"The Annual Suicide Report will enable us to monitor trends in suicide over time and identify risk factors for protective factors for suicide," Orvis told lawmakers during the hearing.
The U.S. military in 2018 experienced the highest number of suicides among active-duty troops in six years, according to data compiled by Military.com from statistics provided by the services.
A total of 321 active-duty members took their lives during the year, including 57 Marines, 68 sailors, 58 airmen, and 138 soldiers.
The deaths equal the total number of active-duty personnel who died by suicide in 2012, the record since the services began closely tracking the issue in 2001.
The suicide rate among active-duty troops doubled from 1999 to 2016, to nearly 22 per 100,000 service members. Colston called it the Defense Department's "biggest public health problem."
"Our trend is worse than the secular trend, and we need to fix it," Colston said.
But while much attention has been focused on the issue of veteran suicides and the 6,000 former service members who die each year, suicides among active-duty personnel remain under the radar and stubbornly high.
Colston and Orvis said the DoD has improved mental health treatment, embedded therapists and mental health providers in units, and introduced a policy in 2017 on suicide prevention.
Orvis said the Pentagon is currently evaluating compliance across the services with the policy, DoD Instruction 6490.16.
Following a record number of deaths by suicide in 2012, the Pentagon also established a general officer steering committee on suicide prevention to address "present, emerging and future suicide prevention needs." The steering committee is intended to provide guidance to the department on successful suicide prevention efforts.
But a source with knowledge of the committee's meetings told Military.com in early February that the number of generals attending the meeting dropped significantly after former Army Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Pete Chiarelli, a champion of mental health treatment for troops and suicide prevention efforts, retired in 2012.
Orvis, who was named to her post in March, said the department has made strides in addressing the issue within the services. "I know we have much more work to do, but I take this charge very seriously."
Terri Tanielian, an analyst with Rand Corp. who has studied mental health and suicide prevention for more than 25 years, described the past six years of increasing suicide rates among Americans, veterans and military personnel as a "harrowing rallying cry for improved effort in suicide prevention."
"There have been major awareness campaigns -- pushup challenges, the sale of trigger rings -- designed to call on the public to do something. But what are we asking them to do? As a nation, we need to do more than just acknowledge we have a veteran suicide problem," Tanielian said.
She said the DoD and the Department of Veterans Affairs must continue their current efforts but also should take a four-pronged approach to suicide that includes zero tolerance for assault and harassment, including sexual assault; reduction in work-related stress, which can increase dependence on alcohol and cause lack of sleep, both known risk factors for suicide; work to improve the U.S. mental health system overall; and reduce access to firearms.
"Firearms are the method of suicide for more than 70 percent of suicide deaths," Tanielian said. "Policies that directly address the risk that firearms pose need to be created, enacted and tested."
Rep. Mark Green, a Tennessee Republican who served as an Army physician in Iraq and Afghanistan, suggested another option for supporting troops -- religious faith. Citing statistics that people with strong spiritual beliefs have lower rates of suicide, Green said military chaplains and religious troops should be supported by commands.
"Not every soldier is religious, but those who are should have access to services. It seems there is an assault on religion within the military. ... The associations that represent chaplains have all expressed to us that their members can't address the spiritual needs of warriors," he said.
A couple of subcommittee members raised the issue of medical marijuana. Rep. Harley Rouda, D-California, asked about research and its potential role as a therapy for veterans; Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Arizona, staunchly opposed its use.
It would not be an option, regardless, for active-duty troops, who are prohibited from taking drugs other than prescribed medications.
A VA official said marijuana and cannabis must be thoroughly researched before they could be recommended for mental health use.
"This is country that thought it could control fentanyl, and we ended up with one of the greatest health crises. This is the country that thought it could control alcohol, and it remains a public health debacle. Cannabis in the 1960s was 2% psychotropic. Cannabis today at 22-23% is not the same. We need the opportunity to do substantial research ... before we could recommend anything," said Dr. Richard Stone, executive in charge of the Veterans Health Administration.
A few family members of military personnel who died by suicide attended the hearing and expressed gratitude that the subcommittee held it. They said, however, that they were disappointed by what they saw as an emphasis on veterans and a lack of rigorous questioning of the two Pentagon representatives on the continued high rates of active-duty suicide.
Patrick Caserta's son Brandon Caserta, a Navy sailor who died by suicide June 25 in Norfolk, Virginia, said the Pentagon representatives failed to discuss contributing factors to active-duty personnel deaths, such as harassment and leadership failures.
"They talk about trauma, exposure to war and mental health, but they don't talk about harassment, bullying. They just don't want to say that it happens and they are at fault," Caserta said.
Military personnel who need help can call the Veterans Crisis Line at 800-273-8255. Suicidal troops and veterans can call the Military Crisis Line at 800-273-8255, press 1, for assistance, or text 838255.