Marine Corps suicides hit 10-year high
By MATTHEW M. BURKE | STARS AND STRIPES Published: January 30, 2019
The number of suicides and suspected suicides among active-duty Marines hit a 10-year high in 2018, according to data released by the service this week.
The Marine Corps counted 44 verified active-duty suicides, 13 suspected suicides, pending verification, and an additional 18 verified and suspected in the Reserve, for a total of 75, according to data provided to Stars and Stripes by Marine Manpower and Reserve Affairs.
The 75 cases among all Marines would top the previous high of 59 active-duty and Reserve suicides in 2012.
Among active-duty troops, 57 suicides and suspected suicides last year topped the previous high of 52 in 2009.
The Reserve started recording suicide data in 2012, when there were 11 cases. Since then, the lowest number of suicides among reservists in one year — 10 — happened in 2017, according to Marine officials. Nineteen reservists committed suicide in 2016, the highest number.
The total number of Marines who served last year could not be confirmed Wednesday; however, there were about 186,000 active-duty Marines and 38,500 reservists during fiscal year 2017, according to the Defense Department.
The Marine Corps is typically a younger force than the other service branches, Marine Manpower and Reserve Affairs spokesman Maj. Craig Thomas wrote in an email to Stars and Stripes. About 63 percent of the Marines who died by suicide in 2018 were under the age of 25. While not all the Department of Defense Suicide Event Reports were finalized, most who committed suicide had not seen combat or been deployed overseas.
“Recent data represents a concerning upward trend in the number of deaths by suicide over the past three years,” Thomas wrote. “The reason for the increase in suicides is very complex and there is no one root cause. The Marine Corps is working with Navy Bureau of Medicine, United States Marine Corps Health Services, sister services, and the Defense Suicide Prevention Office to identify ways to reduce the number of suicides.”
Marine officials said the suicide data was accurate as of Jan. 8, but subject to change. They said the service felt confident only in its ability to track the Selected Reserve portion of Marine Reservists with “accuracy and reliability.” Those members are considered to be in an active status.
The data released did not include demographic information.
Thomas said most Marines who die by suicide have no known history of seeking treatment for behavioral health.
“The Marine Corps uses a variety of sources to understand suicide-related behaviors,” Thomas wrote.
“The Marine Corps conducts continual surveillance of data related to suicide ideations, suicide attempts, and deaths by suicide. These data are used to inform suicide prevention initiatives including: policy and procedural guidance, social media campaigns, education on lethal means safety, and training for identifying and intervening on behalf of Marines with increased risk factors and warning signs.”
News of the increase in suicides came within days of commandant of the Marine Corps Gen. Robert Neller’s “Message to the Force 2019,” which was drafted Jan. 25, according to a copy provided to Stars and Stripes. In that document, Neller said he felt compelled to address the issue.
“No one goes through life without dealing with stress and pain, which is why we continue to resource and grow programs to address mental health and the growing problem of suicide, both within our active-duty Marines as well as our veterans; but we have to continue to do better,” he wrote.
“We pride ourselves on building tough, resilient, mission-focused Marines; but we also pride ourselves on taking care of our own. If you need help, please ask/speak up … we will be there for you.”
Neller told Marines contemplating suicide to consider the residual impacts of such a decision on family, friends and members of their unit, “none of whom will ever truly recover.”
“While there is no dishonor in coming up short or needing help, there is no honor in quitting,” Neller wrote. “MARINES NEVER QUIT ON EACH OTHER! For those who are struggling … our Marine Corps, our families, and our Nation need you; we can’t afford to lose you.”
The increase in suicides is particularly alarming to Marine officials because of the Corps’ extensive mental health service offerings, which include a multipronged approach of training, safe messaging practices and programs.
They said that training starts at the unit level and focuses on educating Marines on risk factors, warning signs, responsibilities for intervention, resiliency, coping, self-support skills, decision-making, peer intervention and intervention via social media.
They also work to identify at-risk individuals, provide them with services and monitor their progress. There are counselors and other services designed for prevention and intervention. An around-the-clock, Marine-specific crisis support line called the DSTRESS Line — 1-877-476-7734; www.dstressline.com — that allows Marines and attached sailors to remain anonymous in seeking help.
This year, the Marine Corps plans to participate in a pilot program called the Suicide Death Review Pilot, in collaboration with the Defense Suicide Prevention Office, Thomas wrote.
The program will study 10 suicide cases from 2018 and provide detailed analysis of each.
They are also revamping their Operational Stress Control and Readiness suicide prevention training.
Suicide determinations fall under the purview of the Armed Forces Medical Examiners System.