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The Causes and Implications of the Increasingly High Rates of Military Suicides in the United States

Kayla Barnes, Camila Robledo, and Angeliki Siafaka, Behavior/Leadership Team

April 12, 2021


U.S. Soldiers with the Colorado National Guard[1]


The high suicide rates amongst service members and veterans in the United States have been a major concern for quite some time now. In the present day, there has been a worrying increase in the number of suicides in active-duty service members since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, current trends do not indicate a causal correlation between COVID-19 and the 2020 increase in military suicides. There is likely an intervening variable causing the phenomenon. It is likely that the increased number of active-duty service members suicides will harm the morale within the affected units and will create further emotional distress to the remaining soldiers. Sexual assaults and the emotional trauma that comes as a result is a significant factor associated with suicidal ideation, planning, and attempts among the female service members. The failure of the military to prosecute these crimes and bring justice to the victims exacerbates the trauma and may increase the risk for suicide. Despite the suicide prevention measures already in place, the rates of military suicide continue to rise and more effective strategies need to be developed.


The COVID-19 pandemic will likely have an aggravating impact on the incidence of military suicides due to travel restrictions and limitations on social contact. The US Department of Veteran Affair’s 2020 National Veteran Suicide Prevention Annual Report found that there are no apparent trends linking COVID-19 to suicide rates in veterans.[2] Statements from Army personnel note that connections between the rise in suicide rates and COVID-19 for the military cannot yet be established. The unprecedented and universal social isolation that impacted nearly every society in the world has led to higher reporting of emotional distress. Stay-at-home orders mandated limited social contact between persons. Armed forces were not a negatively impacted industry as a result of the pandemic, eliminating this as a risk factor for suicidality in the military.


Social distancing requirements and travel restrictions are maintained for service members on military bases around the world. This is likely to exacerbate already present mental health issues or contribute to the development of new mental health issues. Reduced contact with other people will also inhibit the ability of colleagues and friends to observe warning signs that indicate a suicide attempt is imminent. Losing military members to suicide will negatively impact the US Armed Forces operationally and reputationally. Operationally, the armed forces will lose the manpower needed to support interests. This can leave both the United States homeland and its citizens abroad vulnerable to a physical threat. Reputationally, the knowledge that there is an increase in suicidality for the military is likely to discourage enlistment and reenlistment. This in turn will negatively impact the volume of service members available to defend the US. This may also be used by the US’s adversaries abroad to negatively portray the US for not adequately taking care of its service members, which will result in reduced confidence for the government from US citizens and foreign partners.


The Department of Defense has stated that they are adhering to the guidelines from the Center for Disease Control to prevent transmission of COVID-19 domestically and abroad.[3] This included the mandating of mask-wearing and a minimum of six feet of social distancing on all military bases by then-Secretary of Defense Mark Esper in April 2020. [4] Additionally, soldiers may have their travel and social contact restricted by individual country mandates if they are stationed abroad. This in turn would contribute to isolation-related emotional distress. Germany for example, which houses a US military base, continues to restrict foreign travel into the country and maintain stricter lockdown requirements in 2021, including limited operations for nonessential businesses and limit nonessential travel.[5] The disconnect between the freedoms of their fellow Americans on the homeland with the restrictions they may be subject to abroad or as a resident of a military base in the United States is likely to arouse feelings of hopelessness, frustration, and loneliness that contribute to suicidal thoughts.


The Department of Veterans Affairs has declared that Military Sexual Trauma (MST) is a risk factor for suicide.[6] MST refers to the trauma incurred by a member of the military experiencing sexual harassment or sexual assault during their military service. The Department of Veterans Affairs explains that MST is not a diagnosis, meaning that there are no set symptoms or treatments. The disparity between symptoms and treatments would prove difficult to implement a program to rehabilitate them. Additional preliminary research conducted has suggested that about one in four Military Sexual Assault survivors report nonsuicidal self-injury.[7] When questioning whether the victims had suffered from preexisting mental conditions, psychiatrists looked for signs of comorbidity- the presence of two or more conditions in a patient- and found that MST, and sexual assault-related post-traumatic stress disorder caused by previous sexual trauma, are key players in many cases of suicide in the military.[8]


An example of sexual assault leading to suicide with women in the army; for example, in August 2018, Morgan Robinson (28) was in the Army National Guard stationed in Kuwait when she was sexually assaulted.[9] Morgan reported the sexual assault where she has indicated that sexual harassment had continued afterward as well, but nothing was done to investigate the matter. Two years later, Morgan was stationed in Afghanistan when she had told her mother that she had been gang-raped by other military personnel. Morgan’s mother reported to CBS News that she was too afraid to report the abuse this time around because the assailants had threatened her, and because she felt that nothing would be done to help her.[10] It was four months after the assault in Afghanistan that Morgan had committed suicide. In the case of Morgan Robinson, a possible solution would have required medical, military, and legislative personnel to have reevaluated the support guidelines to better suit the past cases reported. Military members in leadership roles could remind their subordinates and colleagues that expressing interest to learn about those around them, and becoming knowledgeable of when the potential victim’s daily actions become different.


While the previous example is related to female sexual assault leading to suicide, there have been a few findings that suggest civilian male sexual assault victims are at a greater risk of suicide when comparing to males who have not been victims of sexual assault.[11] A report done by the Military Suicide Research Consortium in Tallahassee, Florida, U.S., provided a report that there is insufficient data provided that directly relates to men in service and sexual assault or reports of MST and even fewer studies that look into suicide as a risk factor for male sexual assault victims in the military.[12] The lack of evidence between men and women regarding MST and sexual assault reports indicates that there is a potential link for suicide among males who have been sexually assaulted, which would need to be evaluated to prevent it.


Studies that examined mental health disparities within the ranks have found that African-American, Hispanic, and Asian service members report significantly higher rates of suicide attempts than their white counterparts.[13] Even though it is unclear if racism is the main factor behind these increased rates, many minority active-duty service members have stated that they developed suicidal ideation after experiencing discrimination, bullying, and hate tied to their race.[14] Likely, racism and the increased numbers of suicides among minority service members can discourage people of color from joining the army which, in turn, is likely to reduce the representation of minority groups in the U.S. military. The decrease of diversity and inclusion is likely to hinder the progress of the process of combating racism in the military ranks and the increasing whiteness of the troops may reinforce the institutional racism already present in the military. The military has suffered from infiltration of white supremacists and far-right extremist ideology, and these developments may make the military even more attractive to people with racist and white supremacist views. This will contribute to a rise in racism within the military exacerbating the emotional distress of the non-white soldiers, which is likely to cause a further increase in suicide rates among the minority service members.


According to the Office of Suicide Prevention, veterans account for roughly 18% of all adult suicide deaths, even though they represent only 8.5% of the U.S. population, highlighting the disproportionate number of suicide deaths in this group.[15] The fact that veterans face such a grim reality is likely to have a negative emotional impact on active-duty service members and may create more anxiety about the future. For active-duty service members that already experience much stress, the exceedingly high numbers of veteran suicides are very likely to magnify feelings of hopelessness and depression as they may feel despair about their future and feel that they will not be able to overcome the emotional challenges they face. The public may perceive the increased numbers of active-duty service members and veteran suicides as an indication of the government’s indifference towards the wellbeing of those who dedicate their lives to protect their country and the emotional toll that comes as a result. This perceived indifference is likely to affect people’s confidence in the government and the security forces and may lead to feelings of distrust. Such views can likely prevent people from enlisting in the army and may reduce the number of recruits and overall military personnel, which may create staffing shortages resulting in various security risks. This will contribute to the already immense pressure on the armed forces caused by the nature of their job, and therefore is likely to lead to an increase in suicide rates amongst serving military personnel.


It is very likely that the increased number of suicides by active-duty service members will hurt the morale within the affected units and will create further emotional distress to the remaining soldiers. Emotional distress may lead to concentration problems or errors in judgment. Many service members may experience grief, anxiety, and trauma symptoms, and may blame themselves for not being able to intervene effectively to prevent the death of a fellow soldier. The increased military suicide numbers mean that an increased number of service members experience and witness the loss of fellow soldiers by suicide. Studies show that people who have recently lost someone through suicide are at higher risk for thinking about, planning, or attempting suicide.[16] The recent increased suicide numbers will likely contribute to a further rise in military suicidality rates. The active-duty service members who have experienced loss through suicide must be provided with suicide loss grief counseling and can participate in suicide grief support groups to help them cope with the emotional distress. Efforts should be made to improve the suicide risk assessment amongst the soldiers and conduct research to better understand and prevent military and veteran suicides. It is important to invest in more specialists, psychologists, and psychiatrists trained to detect worrying behaviors and provide effective intervention and psychotherapies developed specifically to target suicidal thoughts and behaviors. Awareness campaigns could help to stop the stigma of mental health problems not only in the military but in the U.S. in general.


The Counterterrorism Group (CTG) continues to closely monitor the increased numbers of military suicides and identify ongoing trends and future threats through both our 24/7 Worldwide Analysis of Threat, Crime, and Hazards (W.A.T.C.H.) and Threat Hunter program. This enables strong analysis and reporting to safeguard our clients and the public and provide them with unbiased and factual information. The Behavior/Leadership Team will continue to analyze the intelligence we gather from a psychological perspective, to identify threats before they could become overwhelming. Agencies, organizations, and companies may take similar actions to bring awareness to the increased military and veteran suicide rates and the mental health problems that active-duty service members face. The Defense Suicide Prevention Office (DSPO) continues to provide data-driven suicide prevention in the military community through policy, oversight, and engagement and evaluates the effectiveness of suicide prevention programs.

________________________________________________________________________ The Counterterrorism Group (CTG)

[1]Colorado National Guard” by The National Guard, licensed under Creative Commons

[2] 2020 National Veteran Suicide Prevention Annual Report, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, November 2019, https://www.maine.gov/veterans/docs/Suicide_Prevention_2020_Annual_Report.pdf

[3] Coronavirus, Military One Source, n.d., https://www.militaryonesource.mil/coronavirus/

[4] DOD Guidance on the Use of Cloth Face Coverings, Secretary of Defense, April 2020, https://media.defense.gov/2020/Apr/05/2002275059/-1/-1/1/DOD-GUIDANCE-ON-THE-USE-OF-CLOTH-FACE-COVERINGS.PDF

[5] Germany extends Covid-19 lockdown, with restrictions gradually lifting, France 24, April 2021, https://www.france24.com/en/europe/20210304-germany-extends-covid-19-lockdown-with-restrictions-gradually-lifting

[6] Military Sexual Trauma - A Risk Factor for Suicide, Department of Veterans Affairs, March 2019, https://www.mentalhealth.va.gov/suicide_prevention/docs/Literature-Review-Military-Sexual-Trauma-CLEARED-3-5-19.pdf

[7] Military Sexual Trauma - A Risk Factor for Suicide, Department of Veterans Affairs, March 2019, https://www.mentalhealth.va.gov/suicide_prevention/docs/Literature-Review-Military-Sexual-Trauma-CLEARED-3-5-19.pdf

[8] “Military sexual trauma and suicide mortality. American Journal of Preventive Medicine,” Kimerling, R., K. Makin-Byrd, S. Louzon, R. Ignacio, & J. McCarthy, 2016, 50, no. 5:684–91, https://www.ajpmonline.org/article/S0749-3797%2815%2900703-5/fulltext

[9] They took her soul: Army did ‘nothing’ for soldier who reported sexual assault, mom says, CBS News, November 2020, https://www.cbsnews.com/news/army-sexual-assault-morgan-robinson-suicide/

[10] Ibid.

[11] “Lifetime prevalence, characteristics, and associated problems of non-consensual sex in men: Cross sectional survey,” British Medical Journal, Coxell, A. W., King, M. B., Mezey, G. C., & Gordon, D., 1999, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC27803/

[12] “Suicide Risk in Male Military Sexual Trauma Victims,” Military Suicide Research Consordium, N.D. https://msrc.fsu.edu/sites/msrc.fsu.edu/files//MSRC%20Sexual%20assault%20and%20suicide%20among%20males.pdf

[13] Service members in several minority groups more likely to attempt suicide, report finds, Stars and Stripes, February 2021, https://www.stripes.com/news/us/service-members-in-several-minority-groups-more-likely-to-attempt-suicide-report-finds-1.661563

[14] A Reuter’s Special Report: U.S. troops battling racism report high barrier to justice, Reuters, September 2020, https://www.reuters.com/investigates/special-report/usa-military-civilrights/

[15] Suicide in the Military, Center for Deployment Psychology, https://deploymentpsych.org/disorders/suicide-main

[16] Left behind after suicide, Harvard Health Publishing, May 2019, https://www.health.harvard.edu/mind-and-mood/left-behind-after-suicide



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