When the military loses nearly 500 members to suicide, it means that something has to be done, and the military and government are in a frenzy trying to determine what. So far, most of the media discussion has focused on treating post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). There is no question that PTSD is a major problem and one that the military and government need to take significant steps to address, but its link to suicide is too often based on the media and Hollywood's image of veterans as damaged goods. PTSD is a serious problem, but suicide is another serious problem that PTSD cannot fully explain.
I do not have diverse enough experience to say how the military or civilian world should overcome the suicide crisis, but glancing at available statistics can provide us with a few facts that should guide further discussion on the issue:
1) There is not a clear link between suicide and combat experience: This is not equally true of all branches; marines are the most likely to have seen combat. But, of military suicides, roughly 70% of marines, 80% of soldiers, 98% of airmen and 92% of sailors had never been in combat — at all. Furthermore, of the suicide victims who were in combat, it is unlikely that every one of them killed themselves as a direct result of those experiences. Combat trauma probably was a factor in some of the deaths that took place last year, but stopping the majority of suicides requires a broader perspective.
2) The suicide demographics of the military cannot be compared to those of the civilian world: Suicide rates from the military are often placed alongside the suicide rates of civilians, but the average age in the military is 28 whereas the average age in America is closer to 37. Enlisted personnel (who are the most at risk of suicide) also have different divorce rates, education levels and annual income than the average American. This is not to say that by all measures military members would compare negatively, only that we cannot know the extent to which their participation in the military is a factor in their suicide risk until we know how these other characteristics affect behavioral health.
3) In the military, age is a significant factor in determining a service member’s suicide risk: The vast majority of service members who committed suicide fell in the age range of 17-30. They also tended to fall into the enlisted ranks, with the Army and Marine Corps (the branches which suffered the most suicide casualties) typically losing members in the junior enlisted ranks.
These facts may not be sufficient to root out every suicide, but they would be a useful starting off point for addressing the issue. One of the problems that have prevented America from resolving the suicide crisis before has been the notion that military suicides are definitely related to military experiences.
The military has made a considerable effort to provide mental care to members suffering from suicidal thoughts and current Department of Defense policy is to eliminate the stigma on soldiers who seek counseling. Nonetheless, the stigma remains. Part of the reason may be because while the military has been largely successful at removing discrimination against soldiers dealing with PTSD, this has made service members who have domestic or financial difficulties peripheral to their military service less likely to come forward believing that their problems aren't "serious" enough.
This needs to change. I have no specific policy recommendations, but commanders and NCO's should not only be prepared for some of their soldiers, sailors, marines or airmen to have suicidal thoughts; they should be expecting it. Junior enlisted personnel should have this expectation too as they look out for their peers. It is difficult to find statistics on the segment of the American population that is demographically comparable to the Armed Services, but some studies indicate that as many as 20% of teenagers have suicidal thoughts. I have not found statistics for 20-somethings, but their suicide rate is significantly higher than these teenagers likely to have suicidal thoughts. Recognizing that younger Service members — often in their teens or early 20s — may have many of the same issues is a good place to start.