Ignore the political narratives.
A few months ago, one my teenage daughter’s friends took his own life. These things can be contagious, so I worry. She’s the brightest and shiniest eighth grade girl I know, with lots of friends and plenty of social connections. She seems a lot better adjusted that I was at fourteen. But I still worry.
Military commanders care deeply for their troops and face the same worry. I know from experience that a military member’s suicide can rip the heart out of a unit, and it may take months to recover. Some people never recover, always asking if they could have done more.
As serious and devastating as suicide is, the problem should be divorced from political agendas. Some who search for reasons for military suicides solely within the military sacrifice accuracy and clarity in service to popular political narratives about unpopular wars.
A group of researchers led by Dr. Jeffrey Allen Smith recently published research describing the U.S. Army’s suicide rate from 1819 to 2017. This effort is a fantastic resource for scholars, mental health professionals, and military leaders who grapple the intractable problem of suicide. Their paper plus expanded analysis in the Washington Post ultimately fails, however, in the attempt to ascribe causes endogenous to the military.
Smith, et al., highlight the fact that previous wars saw wartime decreases or low points in suicide, but that both the Vietnam conflict and our lingering war on terrorism since September 11th saw the Army suicide rate increase after the first few years.
The authors show that in the last two decades the Army suicide rate increased from a typical rate of 10–15 deaths per 100K to a peak of 29.7 per 100K in 2012. While Army suicides haven’t quite reached that peak since, they remain in the 20s.
The authors point to possible reasons that have an element of truth but are probably not relevant to the problem at hand. They paint a picture of an insular military that has become a family affair disconnected from the U.S. public which now allows wars to linger. They also refer to lowering enlistment standards, the prevalence of Traumatic Brain Injury, and reduced spending on veteran’s care.
But it’s not just the military…
Their guesswork on causes ignores easily Googled research that indicates that suicide rates in the military correlate with the same factors that drive civilian suicides. They do not correlate with deployment; those who actually go to fight do not have higher rates of self harm.
Military suicides must be put in the context of our national problem. The most recent Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) data brief from the National Center for Healthcare Statistics (NCHS) documents a parallel rise in suicide rates among Americans at large.
From 1999 to 2017, national suicide rates for males aged 15–24 rose from 16.8 to 22.7 per 100K (females make up only 17% of the Army, so the male numbers are more comparable). For males aged 24–44 the rates are even higher, jumping from 21.6 to 27.5 per 100K. The Army rates in the mid 20’s look an awful lot like the national rates in similar age demographics.
Other eras reveal similar parallels. After lows during World War I, Army deaths began rising again in the 1920’s, peaking in 1932 at around 50 per 100K, then generally declining as World War II approached.
If searching for a military-centric explanation, one could argue that the anomie of military service between the wars, under funded and disregarded, drove an increase in suicides. A simpler explanation is that United States suicide rate also peaked in 1932 during the Great Depression. Economic cycles have a profound impact on suicides.
Fighting the military stereotype
Unlike the late and post- Vietnam War period, our military is revered. America thanks and praises its troops. At the same time, some of America still brands our men and women with stereotypes.
The most concerning trope in the Smith article concerns the Army lowering standards and estimating that a third of new recruits have metal health issues, implying that new soldiers are defectives that kill themselves more often. The military services constantly tinker with eligibility requirements and the wavier process, and the Army has gone back and forth on certain mental health waivers.
In reality, this is just adjustment the margins that affects a few folks. Only about a quarter to a third of young adults ages 17–24 are even qualified to join the military after considering physical, mental, academic, and criminal records standards. Far fewer are interested.
American doctors prescribe mood altering drugs fairly routinely, so recruiting requires flexibility. Consider a 24-year-old who had counseling and a 3-month round of anti-depressants at 15. Should that be disqualifying? Maybe she is a star student-athlete with degree from MIT and wants to be an officer?
Rather than leftovers or dregs, today’s military is filled with America’s best and brightest because the rest can’t get in.
Our way ahead
The research from Smith, et al. offers a starting point. Military suicide rates can be analyzed alongside U.S rates, demographic data, plus other economic and social indicators to isolate differences. This could help fight suicide both in the military and nationally, but we have to dig further than stereotypes and easy answers.
We also need to focus more on why older veterans commit suicide at higher rates that the general population. Controlling for age and sex, the veteran suicide rate is about 1.5 times the non-veteran rate. Even so, the veteran rate, which predominately affects older veterans, is a separate issue from active duty suicides.
Suicide in the military is not because of the lingering affects of long wars grinding down our troops. It is also not a result of accepting large swaths of mental defectives. These narratives prevent us from focusing on the ongoing national tragedy.
Youth suicide is a slow-motion train wreck. I don’t know the cause. The economy could drive the rates, or social media use, or increased prevalence of drugs, or some other factor. I don’t know. But I do know that an entire generation is afflicted.
I’ll never stop worrying about my daughter, but if she goes in the Army I won’t be worrying about an increased risk of suicide. I’ll be proud that she qualified to serve alongside our best.