Independent commission to review Army suicide prevention efforts

Despite more than a decade of efforts to prevent suicides among the military, the numbers continue to rise, including a 16% jump in 2020.

To get a better sense of the scale of the problem, Congress mandated an independent review commission in the National Defense Authorization Act of 2022, and on Tuesday the Pentagon announced it would start getting it off the ground. .

“It is imperative that we take care of all of our teammates and continue to reinforce that mental health and suicide prevention remain a key priority,” Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin wrote in a memo signed Tuesday. “One death by suicide is one death too many. And suicide rates among our Service members are still too high. So clearly we still have work to do.

The commission will study suicide prevention and behavioral health programs across all departments, including site visits, focus groups, interviews and a confidential troop survey at each location visited, similar to an independent sexual assault review board completed its mandate last time. year.

“He’s seen enough to know that we need to do something different, that we need to try to take additional and more creative steps here,” Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said of the secretary’s concerns. .

The first nine bases in the list are:

  • Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska
  • Fort Wainright, Alaska
  • Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska
  • Fort Campbell, Kentucky
  • Camp Lejeune, North Carolina
  • Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada
  • Naval Air Station North Island, California
  • Camp Humphreys, South Korea
  • North Carolina National Guard

Alaska has made headlines in recent years with its disproportionate suicide rate among the military. The US military in Alaska alone confirmed in December that it had seen 10 confirmed suicides in 2021, with several other deaths still under investigation.

Austin “spent a lot of time when he was in Fairbanks, talking with troops and commanders about mental health and suicide challenges,” Kirby said of the secretary’s trip to Alaska last summer. .

Other facilities were chosen in consultation with executives, Kirby said.

“So, I mean, it was a team effort to come up with this list,” he said. “And… that’s the initial list of facilities. That doesn’t have to be the end of the whole list here.

Despite having more access to behavioral health resources than ever before, some service members are still struggling to get their concerns about seeking treatment across, while others are experiencing long waits to access care on their basics.

“I think the secretary thinks one issue we need to address is the stigma of seeking help for mental health issues, which is always an issue in the military,” Kirby said. Many service members still feel that seeking mental health treatment will negatively affect their military career, from favorable postings to deployments to chances for promotion.

One specific metric Austin is interested in is gun storage, Kirby said.

More than 60% of military suicides are committed with a personal firearm, according to DoD data. Suicide research has shown that the decision to end one’s life is largely an impulsive decision and that even having to remove a weapon from a locked safe can give someone enough time to reconsider his decision.

“And one of the things he wants to do is work with the commanders on the storage of firearms at home or on base and making sure we have that,” Kirby said.

The department has 60 days to appeal to commission members, according to the memo. After that, site visits will begin no later than August 1, with an initial report due in Austin by December 20. The Congress will receive the conclusions by February 18.

If you or someone close to you is having thoughts of self-harm or suicide, you can confidentially seek help through the Military/Veterans Crisis Line at 800-273-8255, by text at 838255 or by cat to http://VeteransCrisisLine.net.

Meghann Myers is the Pentagon bureau chief at the Military Times. It covers operations, policy, personnel, leadership, and other issues affecting service members. Follow on Twitter @Meghann_MT