Story at a glance
- Multiple military officials have spoken out on how COVID-19 takes its toll on military service members.
- Data shows notable increases among active Army and Army Guard members.
New data suggests that suicides of military members have jumped by about 20 percent in 2020 as compared to the same time period in 2019. The rise comes as the U.S. struggles to balance the COVID-19 pandemic, civil rights movements and unrest, as well as raging wildfires simultaneously.
CBS News reports that in addition to higher rates of suicide, other incidents of violent behavior have also spiked, with war-zone deployments compounding high levels of stress brought on by broad national unrest. Army and Air Force officials have reportedly said that they believe the pandemic is adding more stress to an already taxed military force.
While institutions did not provide comprehensive 2020 data on mental health struggles and suicide within the military, Army officials have reportedly said that discussions within the Department of Defense indicate there has been up to a 20 percent spike in military suicides this past year.
Breaking these numbers down the service sector, the active Army saw a 30 percent increase, with 114 suicides recorded this year versus 88 reported in the same timespan in 2019. The Army Guard reported a 10 percent rise, moving to 86 suicides in 2020 from 78 in 2019. While specific figures weren't included for the Navy, the total suicide figure is believed to be lower in 2020 than in 2019.
Broad increases in suicides this year were not initially observed. CBS writes that preliminary data shows that during January, February, and March of 2020 — before the virus shut down the economy and rapidly spread — there was a decrease in suicides, primarily among Navy and Air Force members.
The numbers apparently rose as spring and summer arrived.
In previous interviews, military officials don’t explicitly reveal the coronavirus as the cause.
“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 said in an interview with The Associated Press.
McCarthy did note that while causation of the increased suicides remains unknown, it does correlate with the onset of the pandemic.
“We cannot say definitively it is because of COVID,” he explained. “But there is a direct correlation from when COVID started, the numbers actually went up.”
A strain on mental health amid the pandemic isn’t unique to military members either; since April, as the pandemic increased in spread and severity, increased calls to suicide crisis hotlines were reported. Data from Google searches also reveals an increase in queries related to panic attacks and anxiety during the pandemic.
Strain related to military-specific issues is also exacerbated by the national disarray for troops. Army leaders have said that the pressure of about 20 years of war and deployments extended due to quarantine requirements take a toll.
“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,” James Helis, the director of the Army’s resilience programs, confirmed. Helis reportedly attended department briefings on suicide data. He also noted telehealth calls to mental health care providers within the Army have increased, running parallel to data emerging from the general public.
For veterans who rely on support groups to cope with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and other military traumas, the isolation brought on by the pandemic has exacerbated feelings of suicidal symptoms and anxiety, according to leaders at the Wounded Warrior Project.
Other military officials have voiced similar concerns surrounding the impact of COVID-19 on officers’ mental health.
“COVID adds stress,” Air Force Chief General Charles Brown said in public remarks. “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.”