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Military suicides spike 20% amid COVID-19 pandemic

A 1st Theater Sustainment Command Soldier presents a folded American flag to a family member of a deceased service member, Nov. 5, 2018. (Sgt. Kayla Benson/U.S. Army)
October 05, 2020

A 20 percent increase in suicide among military personnel this year has Army and Air Force officials pointing to the stress caused by the COVID-19 pandemic as a contributing factor.

Senior Army officials said briefings from the Department of Defense suggest that there has been at least a 20 percent increase in overall military suicides in 2020, The Associated Press reported. The Army’s active-duty saw a jump in 30 percent, from 88 in 2019 to 114 over the same period this year. Suicides in the Army Guard increased by 10 percent, going from 78 last year to 86 in 2020.

In addition to suicides, incidents of violent behavior have also increased amid COVID-19, war-zone deployments, national disasters, and civil unrest.

“I can’t say scientifically, but what I can say is – I can read a chart and a graph, and the numbers have gone up in behavioral health related issues,” Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy said in an interview with the Associated Press.

According to The Associated Press, the Army is considering shortening combat deployments in an effort to put the wellbeing of soldiers and their families as a top priority. While military leaders cannot definitively attribute the increase in suicides to the pandemic, they are taking the parallel timing seriously.

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“We cannot say definitively it is because of COVID. But there is a direct correlation from when COVID started, the numbers actually went up,” McCarthy said.

Earlier this year, military suicides started to decrease, giving hope to military leaders in their years-long struggle to cut suicide rates. Unfortunately, once the pandemic hit, the numbers jumped.

“COVID adds stress. From a suicide perspective, we are on a path to be as bad as last year,” said Air Force chief General Charles Brown. “And that’s not just an Air Force problem, this is a national problem because COVID adds some additional stressors – a fear of the unknown for certain folks.”

Director of the Army’s resilience programs James Helis said rapid changes caused by the virus, including isolation, financial disruptions, remote schooling, and loss of child care, have strained service members and their families.

“We know that the measures we took to mitigate and prevent the spread of COVID could amplify some of the factors that could lead to suicide,” Helis said.

Helis said COVID-19 has led to an increase in tele-health calls and online visits with mental health professionals within the Army. Fewer appointments have been skipped, which Hellis believes is due in part to “a reduction in the stigma of seeking behavioral health because you can do it from the privacy of your home.”

The military is encouraging troops to watch out for their fellow service members and support them in getting help if they need it.