WASHINGTON (AP) — Suicides among active-duty military have increased a bit so far this year compared with the same period last year, but Pentagon officials say they are encouraged that more service members are seeking help through hotlines and other aid programs.
Pentagon documents show there were 161 confirmed or suspected suicides as of July 14, compared with 154 during the same time frame in 2013. The uptick was among the Air Force and Navy, while soldiers and Marine suicides went down. The documents were obtained by The Associated Press.
While the 2014 numbers are likely to change over time as each death is investigated, the slight increase this year is a reversal in the sharp decline in active-duty suicides last year, compared with 2012.
According to the final report released Tuesday, active-duty suicides dropped by nearly 19 percent in 2013, compared with the previous year, going from 319 to 259. Suicides among National Guard and Reserve members increased by about 8 percent, going from 203 to 220. The AP reported preliminary 2013 numbers in April.
Jacqueline Garrick, director of the Defense Department's suicide prevention office, said in an interview Tuesday that while there is always a concern when officials see the number start to go up again, it's still too early to tell because things could change.
She also noted that while often military suicides spike in the summer months, this year the number has gone down in the last month or so.
Alarmed by the steady increase in suicides over the past decade, military officials in recent years beefed up the number of programs and behavioral health specialists available for troops. Data hasn't found a definitive link between suicides and service members who deploy to warzones, and officials say that more often the deaths are tied to familiar, societal problems such as financial or job stress and marriage and relationship issues.
Garrick said service members are increasingly using the help programs. For example, she said there has been a 25 percent increase in the calls to the military crisis line. And a website for troops — www.vets4warriors.com — saw a 500 percent increase in visitors after a suicide prevention program linked to it was publicized in late May.
"Whenever we see people reaching out for help," said Garrick, "That's a win."
She added, "We're happy when we see one person getting help. We're happy to see that one person who needed us, found us and we were there for them."
Garrick and other military leaders said that increasingly they have found that programs are more successful at the unit level, and when service members can reach out — even anonymously — to their peers for help.
According to the 2014 data, there have been 70 confirmed and suspected suicides by Army soldiers; 34 by airmen, 21 by Marines and 36 by sailors. In the same time frame last year, there were 81 suicides by soldiers, 24 by airmen, 25 by Marines and 24 by sailors.
The total number for 2014 so far — 161 — is still sharply lower than the 200 reported by this time in 2012.
Military officials struggle to explain the increase in suicides among Guard and Reserve. But officials have noted that the citizen soldiers are generally scattered across the United States, often in small or remote rural communities. Many members of the National Guard and Reserve report for training about one weekend a month and two weeks in the summer.
They also often don't have quick access to military medical or mental health services that may be on bases far from their homes. That means the outreach effort by the armed services to address the increase in suicides may not always get to reservists in need — particularly those who don't actively seek help.