As senior leaders work to reduce the stigma of seeking mental health care, the active-duty Army had one of its worst quarters for suicide in six years.
Between January and March, the Army saw suicides in its active component increase from 37 in the same time frame last year to 49, according to Pentagon data released Friday. Meanwhile, the part-time components saw a slight reduction. The Army National Guard has had 18 suicides this calendar year so far, compared to 22 this time last year, and the Reserve had eight soldiers die by suicide, down from 10 in the same quarter last year.
The first quarter of 2023 was the third worst for Army suicides since 2017. The numbers are only a snapshot, but they paint a concerning picture for the active-duty Army as commanders await new service-wide policies on suicide prevention that were originally supposed to be released in 2021. The service has also struggled to get mental health resources to bases, partly due to being unable to compete against the private sector for salaries as the U.S. faces a nationwide shortage of mental health care workers.
Right now, there is little service-wide guidance on how leaders are expected to intervene or detect whether a soldier in their formation faces suicidal ideation or made an attempt on their own life. The Army's online resources center on a handful of general PowerPoint presentations, and the service's intervention and mental health care policies are spread across at least five separate regulations, few of which have any concrete guidance for company-level leaders.
In May, Military.com reported on the death of Spc. Austin Valley, an infantryman with the 1st Infantry Division out of Fort Riley, Kansas. Valley attempted suicide during his unit's deployment to Poland, but was discovered by other soldiers. He was swiftly returned to Kansas but was under no significant supervision, was not under inpatient care and struggled to secure consistent behavioral health appointments. A month after his return, he died by suicide.
The service has long promised to rewrite its suicide prevention policy, but effectively halted the effort near when the regulations were expected to be released in 2021. The most recent delay is tied to Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin's goal of establishing uniform prevention policies across all service branches after an independent commission recommended such a move in February.
The lack of service-wide policy has led some formations to issue their own ad-hoc guidance.
According to service data, the most at-risk soldiers are males under the age of 30 and staff sergeant and below in rank. Most suicides correlate with personal issues such as financial stress or rocky romantic relationships, though experts say the cause of suicidal ideation can rarely be limited to one thing.
The risks are greatly increased with access to personal firearms, spurring an advisory panel for Austin to recommend limitations of gun sales on bases, such as four-day waiting periods, though many installations have civilian gun stores right outside their gates.
On-base exchange stores in the U.S. sold 113,200 firearms in 2021, according to data provided to Military.com as part of an investigation into service members taking their own lives with weapons purchased at exchanges. Experts have found that suicide is often an impulsive decision, and even small delays can reduce the likelihood of death.
The active-duty Air Force and Navy had 17 and 14 suicides between January and March this year, respectively. The Marine Corps was the only other service with a notable change, seeing 14 suicides, a spike from eight compared to the same time frame last year.
Veterans and service members experiencing a mental health emergency can call the Veteran Crisis Line, 988 and press 1. Help also is available by text, 838255, and via chat at VeteransCrisisLine.net.
-- Steve Beynon can be reached at Steve.Beynon@military.com. Follow him on Twitter @StevenBeynon