Air Force leaders continue to be troubled by rising suicide rates in the ranks, and some fear that the coronavirus pandemic may worsen the problem, the service's top general said Wednesday.
Chief of Staff Gen. Charles 'CQ' Brown said airmen are experiencing unwanted stressors amid COVID-19, raising concerns about mental health and resiliency in the force.
"Collectively, we're struggling to figure out how to deal with this," Brown said during a Q&A segment during the Air Force Sergeants' virtual symposium. "We are on a path to be as bad as last year."
In 2019, 137 airmen across the active duty, Guard and Reserve died by suicide, a 33% increase over the previous year, and the highest annual number since the Air Force began keeping an official record in 2008.
Brown said the Air Force has found that, historically, most suicides have been tied to personal relationship issues.
"So how do we better help our airmen if they have a relationship issue versus going to go see the chaplain? There's probably some outside entities that can help them," he said.
Brown said one major command is experimenting with a new outreach program in which an airman can contact a counselor anonymously -- someone who may not even be at the same base -- in order to maintain the airman's privacy.
"It's very hard if you want to go see the chaplain or mental health counselor, and then you see them at the commissary, at the BX or at the gym," Brown said.
Brown said with more events moving to a virtual setting amid the COVID-19 pandemic, virtual mental health is something many Americans are pursuing, and airmen should be encouraged to do the same.
"Our mental health providers are actually staying pretty busy doing that, they can actually see more patients. [But] how do we open it up a bit more so we can actually give some more tools to our airmen and their families?" he said, adding that additional resources should be made available to family members who detect early signs their loved one should seek help.
The service lost 103 airmen across the total force in 2018. By Aug. 1, 2019, Air Force suicides had already surpassed that 2018 total by nearly 30 people.
The same month, officials ordered a "tactical pause" in operations to address the issue.
"Our teammates are taking their own lives," then-Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force Kaleth O. Wright announced in an emotional video, which was posted on social media and directed commanders to address the rise in suicides across the force.
Wright said 78 airmen had taken their lives between Jan. 1 and July 31, 2019.
"We lose more airmen to suicide than any other single enemy," he said.
-- Oriana Pawlyk can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at @Oriana0214.