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This week Voice of San Diego published a powerful story about the alarming rate young men in the military are dying by suicide. Our analysis of local death certificates found active-duty men aged 17–25 are nearly twice as likely to die by suicide as their civilian peers.
While the government has previously acknowledged that young military members are at “higher risk for suicide,” reports do not provide age and gender specific breakdowns. Instead, they emphasize that age and gender-adjusted suicide rates in the military are comparable to the general population.
And despite hundreds of millions of dollars in research and prevention programs targeted directly at the military, the problem isn’t improving.
Reporter Will Huntsberry spoke with our editors Andrew Keatts and Andrea Lopez-Villafaña on the latest podcast to share more about his findings. Here’s an excerpt from that conversation.
Will Huntsberry: The main findings were that young men were almost twice as likely to die by suicide as their civilian peers. The rate of suicide among 17–25-year-olds is 45.6 per hundred thousand, which is a lot more than it is for civilians at about 25 per hundred thousand.
It’s especially shocking because for decades and decades, the rate of suicide for active-duty military members was much lower than the civilian population. Military leaders were telling us we do a screening for the people we bring into the military, they’re more physically fit, they’re more mentally fit. And something has happened where that is no longer the case.
Andrew Keatts: How and when did this change?
WH: It started changing in the early 2000s when we were going to war in Iraq and Afghanistan. The operational tempo of the military is something a lot of people will talk to you about, whether you’re deployed or not. Everybody’s just running more drills, doing more things — everything’s more intense. The past seven years have been nothing like 2003 to 2012, but, nonetheless, this phenomenon continues. The suicide rate among the general population has in general been growing but now it’s also going inside those military gates and a lot of money has been spent trying to understand it and fix it. And that money being thrown at the problem is not working.
AK: What has been the military’s response to this if they even acknowledge that this trend is taking place?
WH: They kind of acknowledge it. They do a couple of annual suicide reports, but what they tend to do is an age and gender adjusted suicide comparison of the whole military versus the whole U.S. population.
AK: So they don’t break it down, as you did with 17–25-year-old males?
WH: That’s what we did that was new. Breaking it down and trying to look at the subsets where there actually is a big disparity. That’s what we were able to do, that those reports don’t do.
Nonetheless, they’ve spent a lot of money. A lot of people will talk to you about resiliency. They want to train troops to be resilient when it comes to emotional problems, whether that’s stress or anger management, family communication or financial planning. I talked to an expert who has studied some of those programs and a lot of those programs have been found to be ineffective, but that still is one of the main ways that the military is actively going after it.
Think about the military culture as a warrior culture. That’s got to be part of what you think about when you think about this. You go to boot camp, especially in these infantry-geared services, like in the Marines or the Army, they’re telling you to push through your pain. That’s one of the biggest lessons, if not the biggest possible lesson.
You learn to push through your pain so you can help your brothers and sisters and help your country. So then when you’re asking people to tell you about their mental health problems that they’re experiencing, or a crisis that they’re experiencing, the kind of shame you might feel, or the sense of failure you might feel associated with that is going to be much more amplified than it is here, where there’s already a stigma for mental health problems. So, I think that is the problem. These services aren’t getting through to the people they need to, and the way they need to, because of this greater warrior culture of sacrifice within the military.
I spoke to one former sailor who was having a lot of mental health trouble and had spoken up like you’re supposed. She had time set aside to see a counselor but then she said all her fellow sailors made her feel like she was letting them down when she was leaving weekly to get the treatment she needed.
Have a story or experience you’d like to share? Contact reporter Will Huntsberry at email@example.com.
What We’re Working On
- It may come as no surprise that San Diego’s housing production is not so hot. Andrew Keatts took a look at the numbers and found the city needs to nearly triple the pace of its housing production in order to hit its state-imposed housing target by 2029.
- San Diego businesses that want to make the outdoor dining spaces they built during the COVID-19 pandemic permanent needed to apply for a permit by Wednesday last week. Few businesses did, but most dining structures are still up. MacKenzie Elmer checked in on why that is and what enforcement could look like.
Read These Comments
“Having lost two very good friends to suicide, it doesn’t even make a dent with these articles anymore. When you have the Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy telling people to go pay for their own mental health care, and to ‘lower your standards’, you can’t be surprised when folks finally reach the end of what they can deal with.” – Navydevildoc
On San Diego’s housing production …
“The real problem is that market rate housing is out of reach for much, if not the majority, of our population. Building ADUs, allowing two duplexes on single family lots or other gimmicks are not going to solve the fundamental problem, which is affordability. The private sector is simply not willing to build housing that people can afford.” – Paul Webb