Military suicides are at its highest since record keeping began after 9/11. The DoDSER CY 2018 Annual Report stated that there were 325 deaths by suicide identified among active duty component Service Members compared to 285 in the 2017 annual report. In 2018, the suicide mortality rate was 24.8 deaths per 100,000 population compared to the civilian suicide mortality rate of 17.4 deaths per 100,000.
Although a combination of circumstances can lead to suicide, understanding risk and protective factors is essential to suicide prevention efforts. Research shows that certain risk factors, such as having a family history of suicide, financial problems, depression, substance use disorder and/or sexual violence, can increase the likelihood an individual will attempt suicide.
More research is needed on suicide protective factors. DoDI 6400.09 defines protective factors as individual or environmental characteristics, conditions, or behaviors that reduce the effects of stressful life events. To date, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) list includes limiting access to lethal means for people at risk, developing coping and problem solving skills, and access to mental health care as some protective factors for suicide.
Connectedness is determined to be an important protective factor to suicide prevention. The CDC defines connectedness as, the “degree to which an individual or group is socially close, interrelated or share resources with other individuals or groups.”
What does connectedness look like in the military? Building unit cohesion through leaders who possess compassion, interpersonal skills, empathy and can communicate effectively with their Soldiers will likely lead to social connection. Leaders will be able to identify Soldiers with suicide risk factors and mitigate those risks factors by providing and posting information on where to access available resources, such as, the suicide hotline, mental health referrals, financial assistance, chaplain services, counseling for drug and alcohol or loss of a loved one, and firearm safety education. Research on improving connectedness in a military context also suggest commands and installations that are identifying risk reduction efforts to recognize at risk Soldiers be reinforced with unit level efforts to build cohesion and morale.
Connectedness can take several forms, for example, through phone calls, virtual meet-ups, team building activities, texts or sending and posting messages via social media platforms, and sharing words of support and listening without judgement.
In conclusion, connectedness involves a comprehensive approach to connect leaders, family members, co-workers, peers, and supervisors to ensure Soldiers are supported, educated on suicide prevention risks and protective factors, so they can feel comfortable in seeking assistance, if needed.
Griffith, J. & Vaitkus, M. (2013). Perspectives on suicide in the Army National Guard. Armed Forces & Society, 39, 628-653. https://doi.org/10.1177/0095327X12471333. As cited in an Annotated Bibliography for the Army Resilience Directorate (ARD) R2I Branch
Physical Distancing+Social Connection: The Department of Defense Tips on Staying Safe and Connectedness. Retrieved from https://www.dspo.mil/Portals/113/Documents/COVID%2019%20Info%20Paper%20for%20Military%20Community.pdf?ver=2020-04-28-151037-573
Preventing Suicide through Connectedness. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/pdf/asap_suicide_issue3-a.pdf
Stone, D.M., Holland, K.M., Bartholow, B., Crosby, A.E., Davis, S., and Wilkins, N. (2017). Preventing Suicide: A Technical Package of Policies, Programs, and Practices. Atlanta, GA: National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Tucker, J., Smolenski, D. & Kennedy, C. (2020). Department of Defense Suicide Event Report: Calendar Year 2018 Annual Report. https://www.pdhealth.mil/sites/default/files/images/docs/TAB_B_2018_DoDSER_Annual_Report-508%20final-9MAR2020.pdf