Another year, another breathless headline about suicide in the Armed Forces: “U.S. military suicides remain high for 7th year” reported USA Today on April 3.
Yes, suicides remain high. This is one of those situations where one is too many, and we should be aware of risk factors to watch for in those we know or even ourselves. But any military is a reflection of the society from which it is drawn. So while gross numbers of suicides may remain high as an absolute figure, where does it rate in comparison with the general population? Does the military have a uniquely intense problem?
USA Today states there were 265 suicides among Active Duty personnel in 2015. It is too soon to have national figures for 2015 yet, so the article looks to 2012 for comparison, and the Army population in particular. In 2012, there were 30 suicides per 100,000 Soldiers. In comparison, the national rate was 12.5 per 100,000 people. That sounds pretty bad.
How do 2015’s numbers translate into a rate? Well, one odd omission in the article is it never does that easy conversion; it simply provides the top-line number. To get the rate, we need to know how many people served. For simplicity’s sake, here are the figures from the end of the year. The grand total is just over 1.3 million. For a population that size, 265 suicides equals a rate of 20.4 suicides per 100,000 people. This is definitely better than the Army’s 2012 rate, but still way over the national level.
But isn’t the military different in some small ways? Isn’t there some large percentage of the U.S. population that doesn’t even meet basic requirements to serve? Have we accounted for this?
Well, to use the two most obvious discriminators, the military is both overwhelmingly young…
… and resoundingly, ludicrously male.
(Interesting demographic note: Although it is by far the smallest service, the Marine Corps takes young maleness to such absurd extremes that it skews DoD averages on pretty much everything. Oo-rah.)
Well. Now that we’ve established this, does it really make sense to compare the military rates of just about anything with the general population? Really, we’re concerned with males under 30 years of age.
So let’s have a look. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has a searchable database with numbers up to 2013, so we will use that as our reference year (above Defense demographics are also from 2013). The CDC’s reporting tool makes it easy to look at rates adjusted for age and even military status. Only 17 states contributed data, but, this is a blog post, not a thesis, and really it just go to show what resources any news reporter has if they’re willing to take an hour to browse the Internet.
All that said, the suicide rate for the entire population of these 17 states in 2013 was 12.84 per 100,000. This is in line with the national average.
Next let’s filter by age. It allows the user to select ages 20-29. Looking at just that age group gets us up to 15.22 suicides per 100,000.
But what happens if we filter out the women?
BOOM. Twentysomething males are at 24.57 suicides per 100,000.
The suicide rate for a superficially similar population in the general public is 20 percent higher than that of its military cohort (remember, 20.4 per 100,000 last year). The implication your humble blogger takes away is that to prevent suicide, you should tell the college-age males in your life to join the military!
There are, of course, many further ways to control statistical variability. As mentioned before, the military doesn’t take most applicants, and really we should be looking at only the population that is actually eligible for service, i.e. those not in jail, free of chronic illnesses, with high school diplomas, etc. And, on the military side, we need to look at who exactly is committing suicide, as there are many communities and demographics within the services themselves. A more rigorous analysis would account for these factors, but that is beyond my resources here. The point is that someone being paid to spend their time doing this stuff has the ability to add a little bit of context, even if it is basic. There is no excuse in the Internet age for such shoddy work.
Well, actually maybe there is. Military suicide, as a journalistic topic, falls in the eye of a perfect storm of media sensationalism and partisan hackery. The mainstream media gets to talk up a scandal, the Left gets to further its false narrative of damaged veterans, and the Right gets to blame everything on the Left (at least until January 2017). No one has an incentive to say that, actually, this military problem merely reflects, and is possibly less severe than, a societal one.
Every military suicide is a tragedy. Sadly, so is almost every piece of journalism about them.
UPDATE 4/19: The Navy’s “Health of the Force” report for 2015 was recently distributed. It covers a great many topics, from recruiting to physical fitness, and among includes suicide rates. Conveniently, they did the normalization I speculated about above. BEHOLD!
So, yes, adjusted for age and other factors, the suicide rate in the general population is considerably higher than in the Navy, and even the Army rate which we calculated in the original post.
With suicide rates already so much lower than the normalized national average, one must ask if additional allocations of the Armed Services’ time and money are bumping into the law of diminishing returns. The recruiting process itself apparently screens out a large degree of suicide risk; some basic peer education and a great Chaplain Corps logically reduce it a bit more; but beyond that, how much more difference can we make from such a low baseline?