Just the Facts: Understanding the Patterns of Military Suicides

DHCC graphic
By Larry Pruitt, Ph.D.
September 29, 2017

There’s no way around it, suicide is difficult to talk about. This is especially true when trying to apply what we know from epidemiological and clinical science to individual cases that may or may not match the profiles that the science says are associated with the greatest degrees of risk.

In this blog, I’ll share what comprehensive data collected by the Defense Department (DoD) on cases of suicide says about the rates and risk factors associated with suicide across the active and reserve components of the military services. When I present such data, I’m often struck by just how different one case may be from another, which is why we apply the most rigorous statistical and epidemiological approaches to our analytics.

The data referenced below are from calendar year 2015. This represents the most current data DoD has released to the public. Data for calendar year 2016 are forthcoming, and full reports on the occurrence of suicide across DoD are publically available.

Rates of Suicide Across DoD, What We Know:

When military suicides are discussed, it’s often reported that suicide behavior is becoming more common. This is not accurate. Yes, suicide rates did double between 2005 to about 2011. But since that time the rates have not increased, nor decreased. The confusion comes from a misunderstanding between the number of suicide-related deaths each year, and the yearly rate of suicide. It’s important to note that a change in the number of suicide cases each year doesn’t necessarily indicate that there has been a true increase or decrease in occurrence. That’s why suicide rates should be used as the metric, given that rates factor in changes in the size and composition of the overall population and can be used to determine increases or decreases over time.

The calendar year 2015 suicide-mortality rate for the active component from all the services was 20.2 suicide-related deaths among every 100,000 active-duty service members. This rate was consistent with the three-year average suicide-mortality rate for the years 2012 through 2014. Each individual service follows that pattern as well. Again, rates are used because they take into account the overall size of the military and any changes that may occur in the size of the force from year to year.

The calendar year 2015 suicide rate for the reserve component, across all services, was 24.7 suicide-related deaths among every 100,000 reservists. For the Air National Guard and Army National Guard, the combined rate was 27.1 deaths among every 100,000 members of the Guard. It’s important to note that while these figures are higher than anyone would like, there’s been no evidence of a change in the suicide rates for these groups since calendar year 2011.

Risk Factors:

Based on contextual data collected by DoD we find that the primary risk factors for suicide in the military include:

  • Caucasian ethnicity
  • Male gender
  • Being ages 20-29
  • Having no more than a high school education
  • Holding an enlisted rank

When these factors are combined, the profile probably looks a lot like the typical service member you see doing physical training as you drive through the installation on your way to work in the morning or who is next to you in line when you go to get lunch. There’s not a single demographic factor that truly stands apart from others that would let us “nail down” exactly who is or who isn’t going to engage in suicide. That’s what makes preventing suicide such a challenge; it’s difficult to predict, before a crisis begins, who is at risk for suicide. 

Other Key Findings:

  • Firearms continue to be the most common method of injury among those who die by suicide, accounting for approximately two-thirds of suicide-related deaths.
  • Drug and/or alcohol overdose was the most common method of injury, accounting for 58 percent of suicide-attempt instances.
  • While roughly half of those who died by suicide had at least one behavioral health diagnosis, the other half had no known behavioral health history.
  • Among the stressors that can contribute to suicide, divorce and/or the loss of an intimate partner relationship are particularly important variables among those who are at risk for suicide.

These findings mirror what we know about suicide, regardless of whether the individual was a service member or a civilian. Indeed, the rates and risk factors associated with military suicide are indistinguishable from the rates and risk factors of a demographically similar (age and gender) slice of the U.S. general population.

Conclusions:

The rates and risk factors associated with military suicide in calendar year 2015 were consistent with those identified in previous years. When compared to the averages from calendar years 2012–2014, there has been no change in DoD’s rate of suicide. The characteristics and risk factors associated with those deaths have also remained stable. Given this, current suicide prevention efforts need to be refined, and new, innovative and evidence-based strategies need to be deployed. DoD remains thoroughly committed to its suicide prevention priorities and goals.

If you, or someone you know, are experiencing thoughts of suicide, reach out for help immediately:

  • Dial 800-273-8255. If you are a service member or veteran, press 1 to talk to a qualified VA responder.
  • Start a confidential online chat session at www.veteranscrisisline.net/chat.
  • Send a text message to 838255 to connect to a VA responder.
  • If you are deaf or hard of hearing, you can connect through chat, text, or TTY.

Dr. Larry Pruitt is a licensed clinical psychologist and the program supervisor for the DoD Suicide Event Report (DoDSER) program at the National Center for Telehealth & Technology (T2).


The views expressed in Clinician's Corner blogs are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Psychological Health Center of Excellence or Department of Defense.


Comments

  • How about suicide rate by branch of service? I am leaning toward thoughts that the more difficult the branch or MOS specialty, the less the rate of suicide...Anyone your thoughts?

    • The full Calendar Year 2015 DoDSER Annual Report provides the rates of suicide across the DoD, for each service, and for the reserve and National Guard components as well.  These rates can be found in Table 3 on page 17. A more detailed exploration of rates associated with risk factors, broken down by service and component, can be found in Tables 4 (page 23) through 10 (page 29).

      -- Dr. Larry Pruitt

  • Why are we seeing more USMCR and USNR suicides, per capita, in the Northeast than in other parts of the nation?

    • Great question, but one that we cannot answer solely with the DoDSER system. The mission of the DoDSER system is to monitor risk factors and rates associated with suicide as closely as possible so that risk profiles can be determined. The DoDSER, however, is not designed to address potential causes of suicide or WHY certain groups may have different rates (i.e. geographical regions). To really get at the WHY (i.e. the causal factors for suicide) individuals who engage in suicide related behavior would have to be compared to those who do not (or a valid variant of that comparison), and both groups would have to be as similar as possible in all other ways, except for those factors that are specifically being researched. As a research question, it moves beyond what we can address with the DoDSER system alone.

      -- Dr. Larry Pruitt

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The views expressed in Clinician's Corner blogs are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Psychological Health Center of Excellence or Department of Defense.