Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has expressed concern over the alarming surge in suicides among US forces.
In 2020, 385 active-duty soldiers died by suicide, marking a large increase from the 326 cases reported by the Pentagon in 2018.
“I am deeply concerned about the suicide rates, not only here but throughout the force,” Austin said over the weekend during a visit to Eielson Air Force Base in Alaska. Since December 30, at least six soldiers have died from probable suicide in Alaska.
“One loss by suicide is too much. While we are working hard on this issue, we have a lot more to do, ”he added.
According to the Department of Defense, stressors 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, in large part due to rising Chinese influence.
Troops stationed in Alaska face harsh weather conditions, geographic and social isolation, and frequent training and deployment. Soldiers, along with the rest of the state’s civilian population, also face the high cost of living, alcohol abuse, and sleep disturbances.
During a visit earlier this year to the Fort Wainwright military base in Alaska, military officials pledged to make significant changes aimed at improving the quality of life for soldiers. Executives including Secretary of the Army Ryan McCarthy and Sergeant Major Michael Grinston have pledged to improve barracks, restaurants and gyms, as well as to make “longer-term investments.”
According to the commander of the US Army in Alaska, Major General Peter Andrysiak, the military has already started implementing changes. These include a new transport system to transport soldiers more easily during the winter months, extend the opening hours of gymnasiums to 24 hours a day, improve dining rooms with the Internet. wireless and increase funding for the Basic Daily Food Allowance by 10% to provide better options for soldiers.
In January, US military commanders also ordered reduced hours of alcohol sales at Alaskan air bases. “Several scientific studies reviewed by the National Institutes of Health have concluded that restricting the hours during which alcohol can be sold is an effective strategy for reducing binge drinking and the associated harms,” said Joint Base Elmendorf -Richardson in an article on Facebook.
In addition to physical improvements, military officials stressed the need to improve accessibility to mental health at bases. In February, a command team from a Hawaiian air base traveled to Fort Wainwright to conduct scouting sessions for the troops. The sessions, in which the troops discussed mental health, loss and grief, took place after two suicide incidents in Fort Wainwright.
During his recent visit to Eielson Air Force Base, Austin called on the military to reduce the stigma associated with seeking help with mental health issues. “Mental health is health, period… So if you are in pain, there are resources available. And I know our leaders here are committed to making these resources even more accessible and available, ”he said.
In the United States, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. In the UK, Samaritans can be reached on 116 123. In Australia, the Lifeline crisis helpline is on 13 11 14. Other international suicide helplines are available at www. befrienders.org.