Spoiler alert: its because we’re solving the wrong problem.
You can’t walk around on a military base without being innundated with suicide prevention materials. Walk down any hallway and there’s a poster with the hotline number. Navigate to any DoD website and there is a 24/7 military suicide chat line linked at the bottom. Heck, even if you sit down to do your business in the bathroom, you’ll see a suicide prevention poster on the inside of the door.
Granted, the suicide rate in the military is rising. The military is composed mainly of 18-25 year old men, who traditionally have the highest rate of suicide. Combined with the stress of working in a job field where people actively try to kill you while you kill them, and you’d think that would spike the suicide rate. But for the longest time, despite the many years spent in Afghanistan and Iraq, military suicide was statistically lower than average.
Look at 2005-2008 here. The rate is far below what you would expect. You can look at the crude numbers here as well.
It’s obvious though that the rate was rising. If you look at combat deaths and the news, the United States had a nasty surge in combat deaths from 2009-2011. This was when we were trying to drawdown in Iraq and surging in Afghanistan. It would be easy to blame the added stress for the rise in suicide. But I’m not so sure. After the surge, the number of combat deaths plummeted, yet the military suicide rate continued to rise. The additional stresses of combat, once removed, don’t support the hypothesis that it caused the increase in suicide.
In order to have enough troops to surge, the military, particularly the Army, waived a lot of requirements, including physical standards and prior drug use. This means that instead of selecting from the best of the crop, you get a swath of people that look more like most Americans, which means you get the suicide rate of most Americans. Notice that the suicide rate plateaus and matches the average civilian rate.
This is further confirmed by looking at the most recent suicide rates. The rate slowly began rising again from 2018 until today, despite a continued decline in combat deaths. Now its rising again. What are we doing that might cause it to rise?
If you look at my previous posts here, I’ve been complaining about the drop in standards and loss in direction for the military for a while now. The Army finally admitted it will simply be short 10,000 troops, but that it “wanted to maintain high standards” instead of recruiting more soldiers. To that I call BS, because they already lowered standards a lot in order to get to where they are at now.
Worse still, we’re cutting back on training. The Army softened its boot camp, which caused retention to go up, but likely didn’t help build soldier’s confidence. Most of the services have cut back on specialized training (the Navy in particular), so its harder for service members to feel like an expert in their field. Combine that with a refocus on things like “extremism training,” and military members can’t be faulted for feeling a bit adrift.
So we’re lowering entrance standards, which we have proof raises our sucide rate, AND we’re shortening and softening our training, making less capable military members (who, by the way, KNOW that they aren’t as capable). That’s a bad combination, and its the real reason behind the continued rise in suicide. It’s not that we lack the funding for suicide prevention programs. It’s that we’re solving the wrong problem.
Until we solve the standards problem, we can’t begin to prevent military suicide.
This post represents the views of the author and not those of the Department of Defense, Department of the Navy, or any other government agency.
And if you’re thinking about suicide, put it off for a day, watch this Jordan Peterson video, and then call a friend or a hotline. We’d rather have you around.