While the data is incomplete, Army and Air Force officials said they believe the isolation and uncertainty of the coronavirus pandemic is adding stress to an already strained force. Senior Army leaders have seen a roughly 30% jump in active duty suicides this year, or 114 suicides this year compared to 88 at the same time last year.
The first three months of 2020 actually saw a decrease in self-inflicted violent behavior and murders, according to Newsweek.
The Pentagon has yet to provide 2020 data, but Army officials said discussions in Defense Department briefings indicate that there has been up to a 20% jump in overall military suicides.
"I can't say scientifically, but what I can say is—I can read a chart and a graph, and the numbers have gone up in behavioral health-related issues," Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy said in an Associated Press interview published Sunday.
"We cannot say definitively [the spike in suicides and murders] is because of COVID. But there is a direct correlation from when COVID started, the numbers actually went up."
The active duty Air Force and reserves had 98 suicides as of Sept. 15, unchanged from the same period last year. But last year was the worst in three decades for active duty Air Force suicides. Officials had hoped the decline early in the year would continue.
“We know that the measures we took to mitigate and prevent the spread of COVID could amplify some of the factors that could lead to suicide,” said James Helis, director of the Army’s resilience program who attended department briefings on suicide data.
One proposed solution would be shortening combat deployments. Soldiers’ 10-month deployments stretched to 11 months because of the two-week coronavirus quarantines at the beginning and end.
“We were very focused on readiness four years ago because we had some readiness challenges, and we did a great job. The force is very, very ready now. But I think it’s time now to focus on people,” Gen. James McConville told the Associated Press.
Civilian suicide rates have risen in recent years, but 2020 data isn’t available, so it’s difficult to compare with the military.
Veterans and military leaders urged troops to watch out for fellow service members, particularly wounded warriors who may be less inclined to reach out for medical or mental health help due to infection concerns.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.