Every death by suicide is an unnerving tragedy, and the Defense Department is taking a comprehensive public health approach to save lives through widespread education and evidence-based prevention practices in the face of one of the military's — and the nation's — most vexing public health crises.
There is no simple reason why anyone, including a service member, takes his or her life. As with civilians, military personnel and their families are not immune from life's daily challenges, and there's no single solution to preventing suicide. DOD recognizes the complex interplay of risk and protective factors and take a bundled approach to prevention that focuses on reducing suicide risk for service members and their families. Service-related challenges can play a role in service members' and their families' circumstances — exposure to the battlefield may result in traumatic injuries or compounding stressors, for example. But this doesn't tell the whole story. The complexity extends to social and environmental factors: relationship and financial challenges, substance abuse, or legal issues, can also contribute to a downward spiral and suicidal thoughts.
A focus on lethal means safety is one centerpiece in the DOD's suicide prevention efforts. Lethal means are objects (e.g., firearms, medications, sharp objects) that can be used to engage in suicidal behavior. Safety measures that secure lethal means include safe storage options such as cable locks, locked safes and medication lock boxes. Safe storage of lethal means is an evidence-based part of a comprehensive suicide prevention strategy; it also includes safe prescribing practices of medications and safety counseling to reduce the risk of suicide by limiting access to all lethal means.
DOD's "Annual Suicide Report" for 2020 showed that firearms were the primary method of suicide for service members (approximately 70% across DOD) and for more than half of our military family members. Research tells us that while owning a firearm does not cause someone to be suicidal, storing a loaded firearm at home increases risk suicide for everyone in that household. Likewise, our data show us that medications are the leading method for suicide attempts. This is a primary reason DOD's education and communications put a spotlight on safe storage, personally-owned firearms and medications.
Prolonged stress and the stigma of seeking help and support can also characterize aspects of military family life. At the same time, DOD and national research indicate that protective factors — such as social connectedness and feelings of belonging — are buffers against suicide risk.
Traditional military culture and the premium it places on self-reliance also plays a role; prevailing attitudes often work against service members and their families getting help for mental health conditions or other life challenges. Although receding, stigmas can still reinforce a service member's tendency to handle challenges internally; fear of negative career impacts is a concern.
Consider these statistics:
- Suicide was among the top 10 leading causes of death among Americans ages 10-64.
- It's the second leading cause of death for people ages 10-34, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
- According to DOD's 2020 "Annual Suicide Report," the suicide rate statistically increased from calendar years 2015 to 2020 — from20.3 to 28.7 suicides per 100,000 among active-component service members.
Research also confirms the potent and mitigating effects of lethal means safety. Adding safe storage practices to lethal means, such as firearms and medications, are effective ways to reduce suicide and protect people.
Research also shows it can take less than 10 minutes between thinking about suicide to acting on it. For many people, thoughts of suicide and the desire to end one's life come quickly and intensely. But these thoughts also tend to subside and reduce in intensity just as quickly. Safe storage practices increase the time it takes for a person experiencing suicidal thoughts to access a lethal item. During this critical time, the desire to die may wane. The person may be reminded of reasons to live, or someone else may be able to intervene, resulting in a life saved. Nonetheless, DOD's aim is to add measures that build in additional safeguards between someone who may be at risk for suicide and a method for suicide.
Safe storage for firearms requires:
- A locking device that creates a barrier to unauthorized access or use.
- Separation of firearms and ammunition when not in use.
- Storage in a secure, locked box.
Cable locks, for instance, prevent a firearm from being loaded and fired; a gun case enables secure and concealed firearm storage. Equally useful are full-size gun safes for reliable protection.
To prevent an overdose, medications such as opioids should be stored under lock and key; medication lockboxes are available at most pharmacies. Every second counts in suicide prevention, giving someone an extra moment to have a change of heart.
To prevent firearm-related suicide, DOD takes a multi-pronged approach, working with military leaders at all levels, military communities, military/veteran service organizations and firearm retailers to raise awareness about safe storage options in the home. DOD's efforts also align with the Department of Veterans Affairs on lethal means safety for veterans and service members. Safe storage options are effective in preventing suicides and protecting others from accidents in the home. If not for yourself, practice safe storage so others cannot readily access your firearm without your knowledge. Unload it, lock it, and/or store it away. Bottom line: Stop, lock and live.
Individual can also assist, especially during a crisis. If someone you know is feeling overwhelmed or having thoughts of suicide, check on them, and don't be afraid to ask if he or she has access to lethal means. If the answer is yes, ask if you can safely store those lethal means during a challenging time. Putting time and distance between someone who's feeling overwhelmed and a method of suicide can save a life. Someone at risk may not ask for help, but reaching out to offer support can make a difference. Service members and veterans who are in crisis or having thoughts of suicide or those who know a service member or veteran in crisis, can call the Veterans/Military Crisis Line for confidential support 24/7, 365 days a year. Call 1-800-273-8255, and press 1; text to 838255; or chat online at VeteransCrisisLine.net/Chat.
Suicide is a public health issue, and scientific research indicates that certain types of reporting can negatively impact vulnerable individuals. Reporters covering this topic can visit ReportingOnSuicide.org for resources on communicating about suicide.