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Pentagon Struggles to Address Service Member Suicides

Despite expanded initiatives, veteran and military suicides continue to rise.

The Pentagon on Tuesday outlined its strategy to address the record-high veteran and military member suicide rates that both the Defense and Veterans Affairs departments have struggled to address, a crisis hampered by leadership turnover and poor management in both departments.

The Pentagon’s evolving initiative involves gathering better, standardized data, which will be released in the department’s first annual suicide report later this year; evaluating prevention programs and outcomes; and increasing collaboration with other agencies and organizations, said Karin Orvis, director of the Defense Suicide Prevention Office, at the annual Department of Veterans Affairs/Department of Defense Suicide Prevention Conference in Nashville, Tennessee. 

Military and veteran suicides have been increasing steadily. According to a report from the Defense Suicide Prevention Office, 325 active-duty members died by suicide in 2018, which is the highest number since the department started collecting the data in 2001. In 2016, the suicide rate among veterans was 1.5 times higher than for non-veteran adults; from 2008 to 2016, there were over 6,000 veteran suicides, according to VA’s most recent report.

The Defense Suicide Prevention Office was established in 2011 to provide a more focused response to the problem and better coordinate efforts between Defense and VA, but it has been plagued by leadership turnover, funding uncertainties, employee complaints, canceled contracts, low morale and mismanagement, according to a report by Mother Jones last November.  

“I stand here today disheartened that the trends are not going in the right direction for our military community,” Orvis told the conference audience. “We have much more progress to make.” 

“For more than a year, the office has gone without a permanent director, cycling through a series of temporary leaders—none of whom had a background in mental health treatment or suicide prevention,” Mother Jones reported. “Oversight from either Congress or the Pentagon has been sparse.” 

Orvis was appointed director in March. The Office of the Undersecretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness, which oversees the suicide office, currently has three of its top leadership positions filled by acting officials. 

The Pentagon’s forthcoming annual report will include suicide counts, rates and trends for service members and their families for calendar year 2018. This is the first time numbers for family members will be reported. The report is part of the department’s effort to improve transparency and data surveillance. It will provide “a more timely release of official annual Department of Defense suicide rates and counts to the public,” said Defense spokesperson Lisa Lawrence.  

The department is also evaluating “promising practices in the civilian community that have been demonstrated to reduce suicide,” said Orvis. In addition to analyzing suicide deaths and attempts, the Pentagon will implement programs to address early signs of trouble and access to care. Several pilot programs are underway that seek to help young service members most at risk. VA data shows that veterans aged 18-34 had the highest suicide rates in 2016. 

“We’re looking at every facet of the best way to address a very serious matter,” said Lawrence.  

VA has had its own problems addressing suicide. The Government Accountability Office reported in December 2018 that the department’s media outreach activities (such as social media, public service announcements and website content) declined in 2017 and 2018 due to high leadership turnover. This is despite the $24.6 million the Veterans Health Administration has obligated to media outreach and suicide prevention being the top clinical priority for the agency from 2018 to 2024. 

VA’s ability to help veterans at risk for suicide was hindered by “not assigning key leadership responsibilities and clear lines of reporting” and missing “assurance that it will have continuous oversight of its suicide prevention media outreach,” the watchdog found.