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Over The Past 5 Years, Active-Duty Suicides Have Been On The Rise46:51
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An F/A-18 Hornet lands on the deck of the U.S.S. George H.W. Bush in the Atlantic ocean on Oct. 25, 2017. (Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP/Getty Images)
An F/A-18 Hornet lands on the deck of the U.S.S. George H.W. Bush in the Atlantic ocean on Oct. 25, 2017. (Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP/Getty Images)

Editor's Note: This hour discusses suicide, and contains audio that some listeners may find disturbing or offensive.

If you or someone you know may be considering suicide, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (En Español: 1-888-628-9454; Deaf and Hard of Hearing: 1-800-799-4889) or the Crisis Text Line by texting 741741.


With Meghna Chakrabarti

Over the past 5 years, active-duty suicides have been on the rise. In 2018, there were 541 service members who died by suicide. And from 2013 to 2018, the suicide rate increased from 18.5 to 24.8 suicides per 100,000 service members, according to the Pentagon’s annual suicide report.

"This increase was attributable to small increases in the number of suicide deaths across all services," the report reads.

Aboard the U.S.S. George H.W. Bush, three Navy crewmen died by suicide in just one week.

"My heart is broken," one of the ship’s commanding officers, Captain Sean Bailey, said. "We need all hands to engage … to prevent another suicide."

While the three cases occurred off-base, in different locations, the suicides represent a larger mental health issue inside the U.S. military.

Current and former military service-members, as well as specialists on the subject, joined the show Wednesday to look at what’s behind these rising rates in the military.

"Just because you know that the resources are there, does not mean you feel comfortable going forward," Meghann Myers, Pentagon bureau chief for the Military Times, told On Point’s Meghna Chakrabarti. "People will not take advantage of all of these services ⁠— and all of the training that they have available to them — if they don't think they're going to have a good outcome."

Guests

Shawn Peacock, formerly with the Navy as an MM2 (Machinist's Mate 2nd class), or an E-5. Stationed on the U.S.S. George H.W. Bush from 2011 to 2016. He runs the Facebook group "Decelerate Your Life." (@deceleratedlife)

Meghann Myers, Pentagon bureau chief for the Military Times. (@Meghann_MT)

James Helis, director of Army SHARP, Ready & Resilient directorate. Retired Army colonel and former Superintendent of the United States Merchant Marine Academy. Member of the Senior Executive Service.

Dr. Eric Caine, professor of psychiatry and co-director at the Center for the Study and Prevention of Suicide at the University of Rochester Medical Center. He studies suicide prevention nationally and internationally, including among veterans and the military.

Interview Highlights

On whether service members are supported in their mental health struggles

Meghann Myers: "If you report that you have a problem going on — and someone discourages you from going to behavioral health, or they're not giving you time to go to behavioral health — are service members, are soldiers, encouraged to file inspector general complaints, for instance? Or, to have some sort of recourse, if they feel like they're not getting the support that they need?

"And, that's obviously keeping in mind that if you're already under a lot of stress, and feeling this way, you may not want to go the extra mile. But, I feel like people will not take advantage of all of these services — and all of the training that they have available to them — if they don't think that they're going to have a good outcome. And, I feel like until there are more stories about — 'I got help. It worked out. My command supported me. I didn't lose my security clearance; you have nothing to be concerned about. Go, before it's a real problem. Go, as soon as you have an inkling that you're going down a dark path' — I feel like until that is the main story, instead of what the bad things that happened to me when I went to behavioral health [were], I feel like until that's the story, people are not going to come forward. And I wonder what the services are doing on that end, to make sure that there's accountability for what happens when a soldier comes forward, and it doesn't work out, or they're discouraged."

On resources for soldiers in the Army

James Helis: "We mourn for the losses, and we have to continue our efforts, and double-down on efforts, to try to eliminate — reduce and eliminate — death by suicide in the force, and in all ranks, active, reserve and guard. And we're taking steps to move in that direction. It is, I think, largely about cultural change. It's about … encouraging soldiers to engage in help-seeking behaviors, about making sure that leaders understand that they have to know their soldiers. I mean, really know their soldiers, and what's going on in their lives. So that when there are challenges, they get them to the services — and the help — they need.

"The services are available: military family-life counselors to help with relationship and marriage problems, financial counselors to help with those issues. We have resources that can deal with the risk-factors. We have to change the culture to where it is seen as a sign of strength — and a sign of caring — that we push soldiers to take advantage of the resources, so that they address the challenges. Because people are our No. 1 priority. We can't do anything without people. And, eliminating death by suicide is … at its root, about taking care of people.”

"[It’s] about making sure that leaders understand that they have to know their soldiers. I mean, really know their soldiers, and what's going on in their lives. So that when there are challenges, they get them to the services — and the help — they need."

James Helis

From a former member of the Navy: the mental health issues one faces in the military

Shawn Peacock: "Whether you're male or female, young or old, you're looked at as a symbol of strength for the country. Sometimes, when people go to look for help, I believe it's perceived as a weakness. And, nobody wants to be weak. Nobody wants to look weak. They want to be this big, strong warrior. And, whether it be themselves that feel that it's a weakness, or the perceived reality that their chain of command, and the people in charge of them, will see it as a weakness in them — maybe give them less responsibility, maybe take responsibility away from them. And, for others, it's the reality that maybe their job in the military won't allow them to take medicine for this mental health, like depression medicines, or something like that."

"Sometimes, when people go to look for help, I believe it's perceived as a weakness. And, nobody wants to be weak. Nobody wants to look weak. They want to be this big, strong warrior. "

Shawn Peacock

Caller Highlights

Caller Thomas, from Knoxville, Tennessee, on his mental health struggles

"I'm prior military. I was actually in [the military] when 9/11 happened. … And before 9/11 even happened, I actually had suicidal thoughts. It got so dark where I almost did actually do it. And after that, I went and got some help from one of the sociologists, or psychologists. I don't remember exactly who they were. And, after that, when 9/11 happened, everything got worse. And I'm still talking to the sociologists and psychologists. And it actually took two major panic attacks — where people saw me, literally, just having massive problems — before they'd actually take me off the ship. And it made me feel embarrassed when I went in, and tried to at least get the help, too. And I'm sitting there with trying to help trying to get help. And, it felt more embarrassing because people just were telling me to get over it at that time."

Caller Commander Peters, from Norfolk, Virginia, on mental health in the Navy

Editor's note: Commander Peters called using a pseudonym. 

"We've always talked about peer-to-peer intervention … the first line of defense being shipmates, and we're there. You have my word that we're there. We are looking, we are engaging, we do the brief, we engage the sailors. And we know our sailors, commanders know the sailors. The chiefs must know their sailors. It's just that — my sense of it is — is we're making life a little too hard for them. And, not to say that we're the problem, [but] we're causing their personal problems. Because these sailors get into all kinds of messes that we wish they wouldn't get into. Which creates this black cloud over them. But, with all that being said, it makes it difficult to be a sailor when you add so many of these unnecessary stresses to them — like their PCS moves, like the base-housing that is often less than desirable, like the regionalization of medical care — and all these types of things. We could do a better job providing a better life for on-board [members].”

Caller Kris, from Detroit, Michigan, on her son’s mental health struggles in the Navy

"My son is a current enlistee in the U.S. Navy. He's stationed on the U.S.S. Preble. I’ve received several texts and phone calls from him, within the last couple of months, about the stress he is under, while in dry dock. They work incredibly long shifts, and it seems that there is not enough time for these young enlistees to do their banking, to attend classes for financial advice or even to seek counseling. He is currently feeling very depressed, and at a low point. He's afraid to reach out to his officers and his chief, because of [a fear of being ostracized], and a fear of being exposed as not 'strong enough' to handle the pressure. He's also trying to protect another young enlistee who was assaulted at a party. It seems that the only outlets that these young people have are partying, and taking at-risk behaviors to make themselves feel, I guess, stress-free, and [not have to] face a danger that they're afraid of facing on their own."

From The Reading List

Military Times: "Active duty suicides are on the rise, as the Pentagon works on new messaging and strategy" — "The rate of active duty service members who take their own lives has been rising an average of 6 percent year-over year the past five years, the Pentagon announced Thursday.

"The number of suicides jumped from 285 to 325 between 2017 and 2018, according to the 2018 Annual Suicide Report, for a rate of about 22 suicides per 100,000 service members to about 25. Officials did not draw any conclusions about why the numbers continue to rise despite efforts to train commands and troops on preventing suicide and seeking behavioral health care.

“Although the suicide rate among most of our military populations is comparable to broader civilian rates, this is hardly comforting, and our numbers are not moving in the right direction,” Elizabeth Van Winkle, the Defense Department’s executive director of force resiliency, told reporters in an off-camera briefing.

New York Times: "Three Suicides in One Navy Ship’s Crew Point to a Growing Problem" — "A cluster of three suicides in less than a week among one ship’s crew has shocked the United States Navy, raising questions about why the suicide rate in the service has climbed sharply in recent years, despite sustained efforts at prevention.

"The three deaths were all sailors assigned to the aircraft carrier George H.W. Bush, which is in dry dock in Norfolk, Va., for extensive repairs.

"'My heart is broken,; Capt. Sean Bailey, commanding officer of the George H.W. Bush, wrote on Monday in a Facebook post, announcing the deaths among his crew.

"'These deaths mark the third, fourth, and fifth crew member suicides in the last two years,' Captain Bailey wrote. 'Now is the time to come together as a crew and as a family to grieve, to support each other, and to care for those in need.' "

Washington Post: "U.S. military’s suicide rate for active-duty troops up over the past five years, Pentagon says" — "The U.S. military’s suicide rate among active-duty service members has climbed over the past five years, according to a Pentagon report released Thursday, as defense officials acknowledged a troubling rise that they said was similar to national trends.

"Some 541 service members died by suicide in 2018, including 325 active-duty troops, the report said. The active-duty suicide rate was about 24.8 per 100,000 service members, up from 21.9 in 2017 and 18.7 in 2013.

"'Although the suicide rate among most of our military populations is comparable to civilian rates, this is hardly comforting, and our numbers are not moving in the right direction,' Elizabeth Van Winkle, the Pentagon’s executive director of force resiliency, told reporters on Thursday.

"Service members who die by suicide continue to be mostly male, white and under the age of 30, said Karin Orvis, director of the Pentagon’s defense suicide prevention office. The Army and Marine Corps, the services with the highest suicide rates, also have the greatest percentage of men."

Hilary McQuilkin produced this hour for broadcast.

This program aired on October 2, 2019.

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