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Suicides spiked across the military in 2020; Up 25% among reserve troops

Image for military suicide awareness. (U.S. Air Force illustration by Airman 1st Class Kathryn R.C. Reaves)
April 06, 2021

The U.S. military saw a spike in suicides across all branches and among both active and reserve components in 2020, but while the spike in active military suicides leveled off after the summer, suicides among reserve troops continued to worsen throughout the year, according to new Department of Defense data.

According to the Department of Defense (DoD) Quarterly Suicide Report (QSR), active-duty military components showed the most troubling spike in suicides in the third quarter of the year, during the summer months between July and September.

There were 110 suicides among active-duty troops in those months of 2020, compared to 84 suicides during the same time period in 2019. After the summer months, active military suicides declined to 99 suicides during the fourth quarter of the year, compared to 100 during the same time period in 2019.

In all, suicides among active-duty troops totaled 377 in 2020, increasing by eight percent over the 2019 total of 348 suicides. Between 2018 and 2019, total suicides increased at a similar rate of seven percent.

Among reserve troops, including both the Army and Air National Guard and the Army, Navy, Marine and Air Force Reserves, suicides remained steady in 2020, compared to 2019, before spiking in the fourth quarter of the year, between October and the end of December.

In total, suicides among reserve troops spiked 128 percent in the fourth quarter of 2020 compared to the same time period of 2019. There were 57 total suicide deaths among reserve troops in the fourth quarter of 2020, compared to just 25 in the same time in 2019.

In total, there were 194 suicides among reserve troops in 2020, compared to 155 in 2019, an increase of about 25 percent.

Suicide rates did drop between 2018 and 2019. There were 217 suicides among reserve troops in 2018, before the number of suicides dropped by about 28.5 percent.

The DoD did not offer an explanation for the spikes in suicides among troops in 2020, but did suggest the COVID-19 pandemic negatively impacted service members and their families.

“The Department of Defense (DoD) is fully committed to preventing suicides in our military community – every death by suicide is a tragedy,” said Karin A. Orvis, Ph.D., the director of the Defense Suicide Prevention Office. “The DoD recognizes the potential impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the well-being of our Service members and families. We are closely monitoring potential impacts and taking proactive steps to mitigate those potential impacts. During this time, we remain dedicated in our efforts to educate the force, support the force, and emphasize social connectedness.”

Throughout 2020, National Guard troops saw frequent deployments to assist with testing for COVID-19 and distributing food and medical supplies as part of the pandemic response. Guard troops also responded to civil unrest as often violent demonstrations took place throughout the summer following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis Police custody.

Orvis also said the number of suicides in the report is subject to change as previously unknown cases are reported and the DoD further investigates other known cases.