Spike in U.S. military suicides has leaders looking to better address mental health
LINCOLN, Neb. (KLKN) — With suicides among active-duty service members spiking more than 40% over the last seven years, U.S. military leaders admit that more needs to be done to address mental health.
In 2020 alone, the number of suicides jumped 15%.
Officials have put some of the blame on the pandemic, saying it’s added stress to an already strained force.
U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin has also said the Pentagon’s current mental health offerings have proven insufficient.
Pastor Tom Barber of People’s City Mission in Lincoln said that over the past 20 years, he’s worked with a lot of veterans, and he’s noticed a shift in the state of their mental health.
“What I’ve seen with the veterans I’ve worked with is a growing sense of despair,” he said. “You see a lot more depression, just almost a hopelessness sometimes when you talk to them, and I think it’s a growing problem.”
A recent study by the Cost of War Project found that about 30,000 active military and veterans of the post-9/11 wars have died by suicide. That number is almost four times higher than the number of combatants killed in those wars.
Researchers say several factors led to this point, such as high exposure to physical, moral and sexual trauma.
According to the study, stress, burnout, continued access to guns, an overly masculine military culture, and difficulty reintegrating into civilian life are also factors in the decline of mental health.
“When you feel that, you’re not sure where to go, and I see that among the some of the vets that are here,” Barber said. “And it’s something our country needs to really deal with because these folks have served our country, and for whatever sets of reasons, they’re having a hard time.”
The military has issued updated guidelines on handling mental health, but many soldiers fear the stigma that comes with opening up.
Barber said it can be hard to get people to open up and talk about these things, but the easiest thing to do is try to be their friend.
“I think what you do is you just try to form a relationship with somebody when they’re feeling guarded,” he said. “You don’t deal with the issue head-on. You deal with things that are less serious and just try to make a good friendship, a good connection, and then sort of lead into some of those issues over time, when they feel like they’re on your side.”
Barber thinks the military could better support mental health by expanding access to counselors to help military members cope with things they’ve experienced.
He said that when it comes to homeless veterans in particular, people will usually try to provide housing or supplies to solve the problem. Barber said that while these things do help, often veterans just need someone to talk to.
Several government and military-adjacent organizations are working to keep military members and veterans from falling through the gaps, offering everything from child care, which helps free up time for therapy, to recreational activities that promote socializing.
The Department of Health and Human Services here in Nebraska offers a list of resources for any military personnel in need, along with their families.