Active duty suicide rate drops; Austin says more work needed

  • Published
  • By Jim Garamone
  • DOD News

The Annual Report on Suicide in the Military for 2021 shows a decrease in the suicide rate for active duty service members and Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III stresses the Department of Defense will not stop working to address the root causes of this issue. Austin said in a written statement that he's encouraged to see the decrease, but "we recognize we have more work to do."

Fewer service members died by suicide in 2021 than in 2020 — 519 to 582. The suicide rate among active duty troops decreased from 28.7 per 100,000 in 2020 to 24.3 per 100,000 in 2021. This is a 15 percent decrease, Elizabeth Foster, the executive director of DOD's Office of Force Resiliency, said at a media briefing. 

Liz Clark, director of the Defense Suicide Prevention Office, gave an overview of suicides. "There is an increasing trend for all services between 2011 and 2021," she said. "In the short term, the Army rate [of suicides] was similar to last year, and there was a decrease with the Navy, the Marine Corps and the Air Force. The Air Force was the only statistically significant decrease." 

Foster said that every one of these numbers is a person and represents a family and a community that has been forever changed by the tragedy.  

"Every death by suicide is a tragedy that impacts our people, our military units and our readiness," Austin said. "That's why we remain committed to a comprehensive and integrated approach to suicide prevention."  

The secretary has already put in place a full-court press to take on the challenge of preventing suicides in the military. Austin has approved the establishment of a dedicated prevention workforce to strengthen DOD efforts to address suicide and other challenging areas. "That's been a major effort standing up that workforce, but we are hiring over 2,000 prevention personnel that will be stationed around the world," Foster said. "That's a major investment that's going to be a continuing effort." 

"The scale of this workforce is unprecedented and reflects our commitment to make lasting change," Austin said.  

Austin has said many times since taking office that "mental health is health — period." He sees no difference between being treated for a broken leg or for depression. "It's on all of us to end the stigma of asking for help and support when we or someone we know is feeling distressed, anxious or isolated," he said. "Reaching out is a marker of strength and resilience."

The secretary stressed the department will not stop working to address the root causes of this issue. "We also continue efforts to improve the quality of life for service members and their families, address stigma as a barrier to seeking help, and expand our safety efforts for our service members and their families," Austin said. "While we have made progress in these areas, we must continue to do more." 

One part of the effort to combat suicide is the Suicide Prevention and Response Independent Review Committee to review multiple installations — both stateside and overseas — and make actionable recommendations to prevent suicide. This committee will make its first report in February, officials said. 

In examining the suicide statistics, the risk is greatest for young, male, enlisted service members, officials said. While the suicide rate declined this year, the rates have gradually increased since 2011. This is not just a problem in the military. The greater U.S. population is seeing the same rise, officials said. 

Reserve and Guard suicide rates fluctuate slightly year-to-year, but overall, there is no increasing or decreasing trend from 2011-2021, officials said. "For the reserve and National Guard, the rate stayed fairly static from 2020 to 2021," Foster said. "Our military, family and dependent data lags behind one year due to access to CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] data, but the suicide rate for military families and dependents was the same from 2019 to 2020."

In 2020, 202 dependents died by suicide, including 133 spouses and 69 other dependents. Personal firearms were the primary method of suicide deaths among service members and family members, officials said. 

"We have the most technologically advanced military in the world, but our service members are our most important resource as a fighting force," Austin said. "Mental health wellness and suicide prevention remain critical aspects to our success and the department's enduring commitment to take care of our people."