2017 DoD Suicide Event Report: Key Findings about Suicidal Behaviors among Service Members

DoDSER Department of Defense Suicide Event Report Calendar Year 2017 Annual Repot
PHCoE graphic
By Jennifer Tucker, Ph.D.
July 17, 2019

The Department of Defense (DoD) today released its annual report on the occurrence of suicide in the military for calendar year 2017. The 2017 DoD Suicide Event Report (DoDSER) Annual Report contains official suicide death counts and rates for the U.S. military, identified suicide attempts, and adjusted rates of suicide, which allow for comparisons between military components (active duty, reserves, National Guard) and the U.S. adult population. With respect to the narrative, the report contains contextualized interpretations of its findings, which is important for understanding both the bigger picture and the smaller details of suicide in the military.

The DoDSER Annual Report presents data collected by the DoD’s active surveillance system for suicide and suicide-related behaviors and is a valuable resource for a variety of internal and external stakeholders. Military policy makers, commanders, and other leaders rely on the data and statistical information within the report to implement policy, influence decision-making processes, and determine programming strategies. Researchers can use the data to identify behavioral trends and track the history of suicide in service members. Clinicians who treat service members and veterans can consult the report to determine which diagnostic categories and psychosocial difficulties are most common among those who engage in suicidal behaviors. 

Below is an overview of the report’s key findings:

Service-specific findings

  • 2017 suicide rates for active duty members of the Army, Marine Corps, Navy, and Air Force were not different from the average rates for 2014-2016.

    • Army rate: 24.3 per 100,000 soldiers

    • Marine Corps rate: 23.4 per 100,000 Marines

    • Navy rate: 20.1 per 100,000 sailors

    • Air Force rate: 19.3 per 100,000 airmen

  • After adjusting the data for age and sex (because these characteristics vary significantly between the military and the U.S. general adult population and are associated with significant variability in suicide rates), there were no statistically significant differences between the suicide rates for the Army, Marine Corps, Navy, or Air Force and the U.S. general adult population (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Web-based Injury Statistics Query and Reporting System 2016 data).

Component-specific findings

  • 2017 suicide rates for active duty, reserve, and National Guard members were not different from the average rates for 2014-2016.

    • Active duty: 21.9 per 100,000 service members

    • Reserves: 25.7 per 100,000 members

    • National Guard: 29.1 per 100,000 members

  • After adjusting the data for age and sex, there were no statistically significant differences between the suicide rates for active duty service members or reservists and the U.S. adult population. The National Guard, however, showed a higher suicide rate than the U.S. adult population after sex and age adjustments.

Overall 2017 findings

  • The most common mechanism of injury for death by suicide in service members continues to be a personally-owned firearm (as opposed to a military-issued firearm). They were used in 65.4 percent of suicide deaths.

  • The most common mechanism of injury for suicide attempts in service members was alcohol and/or drugs, which accounted for 55.5 percent of identified attempts.

  • Consistent with findings from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 50.8 percent of service members who died by suicide did not have a documented behavioral health diagnosis.

  • Regardless of whether or not an individual voluntarily disclosed – or was assessed for – suicidal thoughts, feelings, and behavior, 51.5 percent of service members who died by suicide were seen for an appointment in the Military Health System within 90 days of their deaths.

  • There were no identifiable trends in risk or protective factors in the 2017 DoDSER data.

For questions about the 2017 DoDSER Annual Report, contact the PHCoE DoDSER team or comment below. The suicide risk section of our website contains additional information about suicide in the military, including evidence-based interventions and relevant DoD policies.

Dr. Tucker is a suicide prevention subject matter expert at the Psychological Health Center of Excellence. She has a master’s degree and doctorate in clinical psychology and has worked with service members hospitalized for suicide risk.


The views expressed in Clinician's Corner blogs are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Psychological Health Center of Excellence or Department of Defense.


Comments

  • Is there a relationship to the suicide rates and mefloquine use during combat deployments?

    • Mr. Fluegel,

      Thank you for your question and for your interest in military suicide. As you may know, the DoDSER system collects information on only two categories of medications:  psychotropic medications (e.g., antidepressants, sleep medications) and pain medications (e.g., opioids, non-opioids). Accordingly, given that mefloquine, an anti-malarial medication, is not tracked via the DoDSER system, we are not able to determine whether a relationship exists between mefloquine use and suicide rates during combat deployments.  

      Sincerely,

      The DoDSER Team

  • Did I miss a group comparison for those involved in combat operations to all other non-combat groups? Seems an obvious comparison and I would guess there would be significant differences.

    • Michael,

      Thank you for your comment and for your interest in military suicide. The 2017 DoDSER Annual Report does not include group comparisons between those involved in combat operations and those not involved. The DoDSER system is a surveillance system designed to track suicide events over time and, as such, direct comparisons of risk or contextual factors between different subgroups are not undertaken for its Annual Report. These types of comparisons are better suited to formal research.

      Sincerely,

      The DoDSER Team

  • "51.5 percent of service members who died by suicide were seen for an appointment in the Military Health System within 90 days of their deaths."--We MUST do better.

  • As a reservist, coming forth to say you were under stress or struggling emotionally was too risky for fear of being seen as a wounded service member and at least two of my friends that had such life difficulties were promptly let out of the reserves when their life's problems started interfering with their military duties.
    I would like to solely give my observation on the whole situation, being both a prior active duty and reserve service member who have experienced a two separate service members go through severe depression, and, one , committing suicide eventually, as a reservist.
    I believe if an active duty service member does not want to be in the service anymore, there should be a much more easier and quicker process for that service member to get out and avoid the feeling of being trapped, which can lead to hopelessness , depression, etc.., if that person feels trapped in a contract they cannot get out. A proper implementation of this early exit process will prove to be effective in alleviating stress and preventing suicide ideations. There would be no shortage of individuals wanting to get in for every. Member who feel they cannot cope and want to get out.

    Secondly, as a reservist, it has been my observation that the reservists, for the most part tend to be in dire need of personal funds(broke) and have to stay in if not for the valuable healthcare to service offers.. For the Reservist make it more easier for them to stay in the military system, and avoid the rigorous weed out system that tends to apply when a reservist service member is in need.

    True Camraderie, I believe, is a start for the cure for preventing suicides within the military and for veterans as a whole retired active reserves etc.

  • Given the fact that the military screens out those with existing mental health issues at during accessions, shouldn't our rate be significantly lower than the general population adjusted for age and gender?

    • Dear Mr. Caley,

      Thank you for your question and for your interest in military suicide. While the military does screen for various mental health issues at accession (see DoDI 6130.03), a history of mental health issues or treatment does not always bar someone from military service. It's also possible that service members without mental health issues engage in suicidal behaviors. Finally, there are factors that could increase service members' risk for suicide in comparison to adults in the general U.S. population, such as a greater prevalence of pre-enlistment traumatic experiences and greater exposure to post-enlistment traumatic experiences such as combat.

      Sincerely,

      The DoDSER Team

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