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Army sees sharp increase in suicides during coronavirus pandemic

Posted October 1, 2020 12:44 p.m. EDT

— The US Army has seen a worrisome increase in soldier deaths by suicide since March, raising questions about whether troops feeling isolated due to the coronavirus pandemic may be a contributing factor.

CNN has learned that the monthly number of suicides in the active duty Army since March, when the impact of the pandemic began to be felt, was above the five-year average of the monthly totals for the force. As of August 31, the active duty force has had 114 suicides compared to 88 in the same time period during 2019. One-hundred and fourteen deaths is the highest number in the first eight months of any year since 2012.

The total rate of suicides is especially troubling to the Army because for active duty soldiers alone it was 36 per 100,000 so far in 2020 compared to 30.6 the year before.

For the total Army forces, including guard and reserve forces, there were 200 suicides by August 31 of this year compared to 166 for the same period in 2019. The highest number of suicides occurred in July with 35 cases, or more than one suicide every day.

CNN has not obtained the 2020 figures for the other services including the Navy, Marines and Air Force.

The Associated Press first reported the 2020 Army figures.

On Thursday, the Pentagon released its annual report detailing the number of suicides in 2019. For all members of the active duty military there were 342 suicides in 2019 compared to 324 the year before. DOD calculates that is a rate of 25.8 per 100,000 in 2019 compared to 24.7 in 2018.

Army and defense officials privately say they cannot definitively prove that the stress caused by troops feeling isolated during the pandemic played a role. But they believe it may have due to the time frame in which the increase has occurred.

Military has attempted to mitigate impact of pandemic on operations

While the military has looked to mitigate the impact of the pandemic on the military with training and operations continuing, there have been periods when the movement of forces have been restricted, which officials believe may have led to some service members feeling isolated.

Arash Javanbakht, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral neurosciences at Wayne State University, told CNN that the pandemic is likely a factor contributing to the increase in suicides in combination with a list of other factors that come with serving in the military.

"When it comes to the military population, there's a higher level of stress. This is a high stress job and situation and there's a higher level of trauma, PTSD, depression, substance use, as well as medical conditions which are already there" regardless of the pandemic, he said.

That message was echoed by Sheila Rauch, a psychiatry professor at Emory University, who noted "regardless of whether you're in the military or out of the military, if your social supports are removed, you will get more isolated and you'll be at a higher risk of acting on impulses toward harming yourself."

In recent months the Army has stressed virtual mental health services while keeping all 16 of the Army's inpatient psychiatric wards open.

Overall, the predominant demographic for suicides, the Army says, are caucasian males, who are junior or mid-grade enlisted, generally under the age of 29. Generally they have access to a personally owned weapon and may have issues related to behavioral health, finances, substance abuse or relationships, according to the officials.

The Army is considering whether shortening deployment cycles could help ease stress two officials say. The length of deployments can vary widely from six months to a year, depending on the type of unit involved and the extent to which freedom of movement is restricted due to Covid-19.

All of the services are increasing the availability of online, virtual and when possible, in-person behavioral health services. There is a consistent effort to try to show troops there is no stigma in seeking help and the Army has redesigned its suicide prevention program with more trainers providing support and advice throughout the service.

And while there have been meaningful strides in recent years, stigma against seeking mental health treatment remains "pretty significant," Rauch said.

"Within certain professions, like military or police or fire where it's a population that's going towards trauma quite often, those populations tend to have more of a stigma towards seeking mental health."

In a recent virtual town hall, one sailor asked a question that got the attention of top leaders. Petty Officer Second Class Jynishia Hines, on board the USS Gerald Ford, made it clear the impact of social distancing and isolation during Covid-19 has taken a toll on sailors she knew.

"Their morale has plummeted, but most importantly, their mental health, as well." Later, a defense official said senior Navy enlisted personnel would talk to those on the ship and see what they could do to help.

And Army Gen. Paul Funk, who leads the Army Training and Doctrine Command, said at the Army's 2020 Fires Conference Tuesday, "in my opinion, just like we have to go see the dentist, we all ought to have to go see the behavioral health specialist once a year."

"We've got to try to turn the corner on the suicide issue, and we've got to work hard to make people feel like they are part of our organization that can turn to us in times of need," he said.

The Veterans and Military Crisis Line offers 24-hour support for veterans, service members, members of the National Guard and Reserve and family at 1-800-273-8255 and press 1, or chat online. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline can also be reached 24 hours a day at 1-800-273-8255.

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