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Officials: Overall active-duty military suicides up by as much as 20% during pandemic

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

MARKIIAN LYSEIKO/ Ukrinform/Barcroft Media via Getty Images

Suicides by active-duty U.S. military service members have risen by as much as 20% during the coronavirus pandemic, according to reports from senior military officials.

While the Pentagon has not released 2020 data, which remains incomplete, U.S. Army and Air Force leaders told the Associated Press they believe the pandemic is adding stress to service members who are already under the strain of war-zone deployments, national disasters, and violent demonstrations in U.S. cities. They say there have been 114 active-duty suicides this year compared to 88 at the same time last year, roughly a 30% increase.

"Army officials said discussions in Defense Department briefings indicate there has been up to a 20% jump in overall military suicides this year," the AP reports. "The Army Guard is up about 10%, going from 78 last year to 86 this year. The Navy total is believed to be lower this year."

The causes of suicide are complex and cannot solely be attributed to stress caused by COVID-19, but Army officials say the increase in suicides is timed with the start of the pandemic.

"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 told the AP.

"We cannot say definitively it is because of COVID. But there is a direct correlation from when COVID started, the numbers actually went up," he added.

The active-duty Air Force and reserves had 98 suicides as of Sept. 15, the same number as reported last year. But 2019 was the worst year in three decades for active-duty Air Force suicides. While the overall number of reported active-duty and reserves suicides initially dipped beginning in 2020, since spring it has trended upward, discouraging military leaders.

"COVID adds stress," Air Force Gen. Charles Brown said. "From a suicide perspective, we are on a path to be as bad as last year. 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."

James Helis, director of the Army's resilience program, attended department briefings on suicide data. He said lockdown-related isolation, financial difficulties, learn-from-home schooling, and the loss of child care happening suddenly and at the same time have put significant stress on military 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.

Among those measures was increased deployment time. Soldiers' 10-month deployments were increased to 11 months because of two-week quarantine requirements at the beginning and end of overseas deployments. The Army is looking into shortening combat deployments to lessen the stress soldiers are facing.

"We were very focused on readiness four years ago because we had some readiness challenges, and we did a great job. The force is very, very ready now. But I think it's time now to focus on people," Gen. James McConville said.

The AP report noted that civilian suicides have also risen in recent years, but because 2020 data isn't yet available, it's difficult to compare with the military.

A CDC report released in August did note that 25.5% of 18-24-year-olds surveyed in late June had serious thoughts about committing suicide during the previous 30 days. "The levels of suicidal tendencies overall more than doubled since 2018 and nearly quadrupled for people between 25 and 44," Daniel Horowitz wrote for TheBlaze.

Military officials are encouraging troops to reach out and support their fellow service members, particularly wounded warriors who may be less inclined to get mental or medical help due to infection concerns.

Need help? Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-8255) Military veterans press 1. Individuals can also go to: https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org/talk-to-someone-now and veterans can go to woundedwarriorproject.org or call the project's resource center at: 888-997-2586.

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