Health Blog

Easing the Burden of Military Suicide

A new study shows promising data from the Air Force’s Suicide Prevention Program

May 26, 2010

By most accounts, mental health in the military is a steadily worsening problem. With current conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan forcing multiple deployments and increased combat exposure, 10 to 15 percent of soldiers come home with post-traumatic stress disorder. And, because of the military stigma associated with mental illness, many will never get treatment, increasing their risk for violent behavior and suicide.

But data published this month in the American Journal of Public Health suggests that programs targeting suicidal behavior in the military, particularly one initiated by the Air Force, may be making a dent in the otherwise grim statistics.

Dr. Kerry L. Knox of the University of Rochester Medical Center led a review of the success of the Air Force Suicide Prevention Program, comparing suicide rates before 1997, when the program went into full effect, with those collected through 2008. The program was designed to promote early identification of suicidal risk factors and encourage those at risk to seek help by reducing the stigma associated with mental illness and providing enhanced privacy for members that do get treatment. Mean suicide rates dropped over 20 percent in the years analyzed, from 3.033 per 100,000 in each quarter (3 months) before the program was implemented to 2.387 per 100,000. The authors were unable to take into account the affect that current and recent wars may have had on suicide rates.

According to material published through the Air Force program, the total number of suicides has also dropped 28 percent since 1996. At its highest toll, suicide was the cause of 68 Air Force deaths in 1994; at its lowest it took the lives of 20 in 1999.

Still, a survey by the Department of Defense released last December showed that suicide is an increasing problem in the military. While the Air Force has lower attempted suicide rates (1.6 percent per year) than the Army (2 percent), Marine Corps (2.3 percent), and the Navy (2.8 percent), these rates doubled in total in 2008 compared the previous DoD study, conducted in 2005.

Last August, the Department of Defense announced its new Task Force on the Prevention of Suicide by Members of the Armed Forces, and psychologists are increasingly recognizing the need for more comprehensive mental health treatment for soldiers. Knox and her colleagues recognize the challenges of implementing and maintaining a program like the one showing success in the Air Force, but remain encouraging:

“The enduring pubic health message from 12 years of this program is that suicide rates can be reduced, and that program success requires interventions to be consistently supported, maintained, and monitored for compliance.”

About the Author

Genevra Pittman

Genevra Pittman spent her undergrad studying Biology, which took her everywhere from the beaches of Malaysia to basement hamster labs in suburban Philadelphia. She also pursued her passion for journalism by editing and writing for her college paper’s sports section. She now reports on health and the environment and has written for Reuters Health, The Boston Globe, and OnEarth, the magazine of the Natural Resources Defense Council.



J. Gates says:

Check your numbers. Though the Air Force is doing it’s best to stem this unnatural tide, four Airmen have died by suicide this month alone, May 2010.
My son was one of them.
He died May 3rd in Khyber, Afghanistan.
I have the highest respect for the Air Force and all who serve.
But the numbers show we are failing our airmen, and they are paying for our
failure with their lives.

Joie Gates
Mother of A1C Austin H. Gates Benson

KPatterson says:

It’s good that they’re increasing confidentiality but the elephant in the room is that most of the people who need help won’t seek it or will be highly reluctant to because they know they risk losing security clearances or their place on a flight crew and could get kicked out altogether. Of course a life is more important than a job but it would be naive to think that worry about a lost pension or forced separation doesn’t add to the stigma and the stress and make things worse.

The symptoms of depression can be very hard to detect, particularly in males and even more so for those in those in the military or law enforcement where they have been trained to be compartmentalized and stuff down their emotions, especially since depression creeps up on you like a shadow and eats away at the edges of your soul until the increasingly depressed state becomes the new normal and you never realize you’re in trouble; this can easily lead to tragedy.

They need a safe, completely confidential place – aside from seeing a civilian counsellor on the sly – to air their problems or else deaths by suicide will continue.

Joie, I’m sorry for the loss of your son. An old boyfriend of mine, a decorated Major, killed himself last October and it’s been a real trauma for me.

Joie says:

My deepest condolences on your loss..
I feel your pain.

Joie Gates

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