The headlines depict an epidemic occurring within our military. Not a day goes by that there isn’t some publication highlighting the increase in suicides among our nation’s finest warriors. RAND Center for Military Health Policy Research, a joint endeavor of RAND Health and the RAND National Defense Institute, conducted a thorough investigation of suicides in our military – answering questions such as “who is at risk” and “what can be done to prevent.” We’ll explore a few of those findings over the next few postings.
First, let’s clear up what the military’s suicide rate is. The National Guard suicide rate is hard to track and so the reported numbers are most likely low — in 2010, more than 110 Guard suicides were reported. Experts suggest the numbers could be much higher, but there are reasons family members don’t report a death by suicide – embarrassment or financial. A death by suicide will negate a life insurance policy.
The Department of Defense tracks suicides only among servicemembers on active duty. In 2008, the Army and the Marine Corps had the highest suicide rates, at 18.5 and 19.5 per 100,000, respectively. Corresponding rates in the Air Force and the Navy were 12.1 and 11.6, respectively. Overall, there was a climb in suicide rates from 10 per 100,000 in 2001 to almost 16 per 100,000 in 2008. Is this an epidemic?
The annual suicide rate for the U.S. population is about 10 per 100,000. Comparing the crude U.S. rate with that of the military is a bit misleading because the military population differs substantially from the general population. According to RAND, if you compare “comparables” between the general population and the military population, the general population is substantially higher than that in the Department of Defense. Nonetheless, it doesn’t make the issue any less important.
So now that we’ve got that cleared up, who dies by suicide in the military? We know that the military is disproportionately male, so it only makes sense that males are generally more likely to die by suicide than females. But are there leading predictors like mental disorder, substance abuse, head trauma, PTSD? Those issues factor in, but only in a small percentage, according to the research. RAND found that there are multiple “triggers” – an event, or events, such as a death of a family member or a rupture in marital or familial relations. Or in some cases, the evidence indicates that a “contagion” effect may exist – the suicide or reporting of a suicide may lead to another suicide.
What was consistent throughout their research was those who die by suicide in the military had access to firearms. I will withhold my comment on this last finding.
Bottom line: The military is taking this issue very seriously. The death of one soldier is the death of a family member and can be considered epidemic to all those impacted. We’ll uncover some of the recommendations on how to prevent and combat suicide in the military next time.
Michael Schindler, Navy veteran, and president of Edmonds-based Operation Military Family, is a guest writer for several national publications, author of the book “Operation Military Family” and “The Military Wire” blog. He is also a popular keynote and workshop speaker who reaches thousands of service members and their families every year through workshops and seminars that include “How to Battle-Ready Your Relationship” or “What Your Mother-in-Law Didn’t Tell You.” He received the 2010 Outstanding Patriotic Service Award from the Washington State Department of Veterans Affairs.