The defense secretary, Lloyd Austin, has expressed concern about the alarming spike in suicides among US forces.
In 2020, 385 active-duty soldiers died by suicide, marking a steep increase from the 326 cases reported by the Pentagon in 2018.
“I’m deeply concerned about the suicide rates, not only here but across the force,” Austin said over the weekend on a visit to the Eielson air base in Alaska. Since 30 December, at least six soldiers have died by probable suicide in Alaska.
“One loss by suicide is too many. While we’re working hard on this problem, we have a lot more to do,” he added.
According to the defense department, stress factors for troops include the unpredictability of life in the military. Speaking on condition of anonymity to USA Today, an official also cited commanders’ increasingly aggressive demands for more forces, largely due to the rise of Chinese influence.
Troops stationed in Alaska encounter harsh weather conditions, geographic and social isolation, as well as frequent training and deployment. Soldiers, along with the rest of the state’s civilian population, also face high costs of living, prevalent alcohol abuse and sleep disorders.
In a visit earlier this year to Alaska’s Fort Wainwright army base, army officials promised to make significant changes aimed at improving soldiers’ quality of life. Leaders including the army secretary, Ryan McCarthy, and Sgt Maj Michael Grinston pledged to improve barracks, dining and gym facilities, as well as to make “longer-term investments”.
According to the US Army Alaska commander, Maj Gen Peter Andrysiak, the army has already begun implementing changes. These include a new transportation system to transport soldiers more easily during the winter months, extending gym hours to 24 hours a day, upgrading dining facilities with wireless internet and increasing basic daily food allowance funding by 10% to provide better-quality options for soldiers.
In January, US military commanders also ordered alcohol sale hours to be curbed on Alaskan air bases. “Several scientific studies reviewed by the National Institutes of Health have concluded that restricting the hours when alcohol may be sold is an effective strategy for reducing excessive alcohol consumption and related harms,” the joint base Elmendorf-Richardson said in a Facebook post.
In addition to physical improvements, army officials have stressed the need for improving mental health accessibility on bases. In February, a command team from a Hawaiian airbase visited Fort Wainwright to hold sensing sessions for troops. The sessions, in which troops discussed mental health, loss and grief, came after two incidents of suicide on Fort Wainwright.
In his recent visit to Eielson airbase, Austin called on the army to reduce the stigma associated with seeking help for mental health issues. “Mental health is health, period … So if you’re hurting, there are resources available. And I know that our leaders here are committed to making those resources even more accessible and available,” he said.
In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. In the UK the Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is on 13 11 14. Other international suicide helplines can be found at www.befrienders.org.