Suicide rate among active-duty soldiers falls sharply

Although suicides among active-duty soldiers declined after a record year in 2012, 151 members of the National Guard and Army Reserves not on active duty took their own lives in 2013, up from 140 the previous year.
(AFP/Getty Images )

WASHINGTON—Suicides among soldiers on active duty dropped steeply last year but went up among those in the National Guard and reserves, according to Army data, suggesting discrepancies in efforts to stem the epidemic of soldiers taking their own lives.

About 150 active-duty soldiers committed suicide last year, down from 185 in 2012, the highest annual number on record, according to statistics provided Friday by the Army.

But 151 members of the National Guard and Army Reserves not on active duty also took their own lives in 2013, up from 140 the previous year.

Overall, the total number of suicides fell to 301 last year from 325 the year before, the first decline in over a decade. Experts said that the suicide problem appears to be easing as the wars of the last decade come to an end.


But the figures raised questions about whether the Army is doing enough to help reservists. Many reservists have done repeated deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan but have less access to military counseling and other suicide-prevention measures when not on active duty.

“Who is keeping track of those in the Guard?” said Dr. Barbara van Dahlen, a psychologist and founder of Give an Hour, a nonprofit organization that provides counseling to soldiers. “It’s a much more dispersed community, and [the Army] doesn’t have the resources to reach all those folks who might be struggling.”

The Army and other services have greatly expanded programs aimed at preventing suicides by adding new counseling opportunities, monitoring soldiers suffering from traumatic stress and other disorders, and even stepping up efforts to force soldiers with untreatable psychological problems out of the military.

The drop in the suicide rate “could indicate resiliency efforts are starting to take hold across the force,” said Army spokesman Paul Prince. “Ultimately, the Army acknowledges there is more work to do.”

He said that the Pentagon was working with the Veterans Administration “to identify gaps and leverage resources.”

Army experts and private therapists who have studied the problem say there is no direct link between time spent in a war zone and suicide. But they acknowledge that stress and injury from combat is one characteristic, along with drugs, relationship difficulties and money problems, that is often prevalent among suicidal soldiers.

Of the 151 suicides last year among soldiers not on active duty, 98 were in the Guard and 53 were in the Army Reserve.

Reservists can receive counseling and other treatment through military programs as long as their problems stem from trauma they experienced on active duty.

Otherwise they must seek treatment through the Veterans Administration or seek private treatment. But many reservists come from rural areas where access to counseling and other assistance program can be difficult, said Van Dahlen.

Her organization, which links volunteer therapists with soldiers, signed an agreement with the National Guard last summer to offer counseling to 50 Guard units around the country, she said.

“We are not at the point yet where a Guard member can easily get help,” she said.