State of Mind

The Military Keeps Making One Obvious Mistake With Its Suicide Prevention Efforts

A broken chain link.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by MicrovOne/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

Welcome to State of Mind, a new section from Slate and Arizona State University dedicated to exploring mental health. Follow us on Twitter.

When I attempted to voluntarily access mental health care upon my return from Iraq, I faced negative career consequences and harassment. My supervisors tried to force my medical providers to alter my care. I was told by my superiors that I wasn’t fit to stand in front of soldiers because I’d sought treatment—even though there had never been a negative mark on my service record. My trust in my leaders was forever shaken; the very people who were supposed to look after my well-being were actively working against it.

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I continued with my treatment and eventually left the military. But I will never forget the shock of realizing that my leaders—those who preach about integrity and honor—were looking after their own interests.

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My leaders felt comfortable targeting me for seeking treatment because they were enabled by a system that fails to ensure even the bare minimum of mental health support is provided. At the most fundamental, just finding where to get help is difficult. In a recent investigation, I found that military suicide prevention and mental health resources are or were filled with broken links, inoperable phone numbers, and out-of-date information.

Consider the suicide prevention page for Fort Wainwright, Alaska, the current epicenter of the Army’s suicide crisis. The page houses a link to a suicide resource matrix, a collection of contact information that says it’s to be updated and validated four times a year. It hasn’t been updated once in almost three years, even after the commander of Army forces in Alaska stated this May that “suicide prevention was his top priority.” In April, USA Today reported, “Suicide among the 11,500 soldiers posted to Alaska reached crisis proportions in 2021. The Army has confirmed or suspects that 17 soldiers died by suicide last year, more than the previous two years combined.” On a per capita basis, the death by suicide rate for Army soldiers in the state is 147 per 100,000.

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Or take Fort Hood, Texas, base of Spc. Vanessa Guillén, whose murder caused the Department of Defense to fire officials and make statements about changing the installation’s culture. Experts gathered at the installation in January to discuss suicide prevention; the base’s suicide prevention page, however, hasn’t been updated since 2012, has broken links, and contains no contact information for the base’s therapy services. After I informed the DOD of the issues with this page, it deleted the site.

There is also the case of Camp Lejeune, a Marine Corps base in North Carolina that had one of the highest rates of suicide among bases in the nation in 2020. Its website at one point directed users looking for mental health resources to an inoperable link. (After I informed the DOD of the issue, it was fixed.) The USMC’s main website for suicide prevention resources is out of date, too: One page has info for the DSTRESS hotline, which was staffed by counselors and former military personnel as a 24-hour available option for those in distress. That sounds great—except the DSTRESS line has been inoperable since March. Yet USMC bases such as Camp Pendleton, California, still cite the line as a resource.

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This is not an exhaustive list of the problems on websites; it’s just the ones that I’ve found. I began looking into it after discovering that the DOD’s own suicide prevention website was broken for more than a year with multiple weblinks that led to nonexistent mental health support webpages.

When I asked the DOD about how it ensures these websites are up to date, a spokesperson told me that the department is “taking efforts to ensure suicide prevention resources on our website are regularly updated” and that it “regularly collaborate[s] with a number of resource providers such as the Veteran’s Crisis Line/Military Crisis Line and Military One Source to provide updated 24/7/365 online crisis and resource availability.” When asked about who is responsible for executing these tasks, they said, “The Department maintains oversight of content on DSPO.mil. Individual Service suicide prevention resource pages and sites are maintained at the Service and installation level.” That would explain why only some of the sites I mentioned have been updated; those are the ones DOD has oversight of.

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This response is disappointing, not just for the attempt to shift responsibility on individual services and units, but for its refusal to acknowledge that even the department clearly wasn’t maintaining its own websites until I found errors with them.

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It could be that the DOD, branches of the military, and installations often create suicide prevention resources with good intentions and then simply forget to update them continuously due to a sprawling and atomized system that seems to have no central oversight. Establishing a system for mental health outreach online also requires funding to do so, and it is currently unclear how much the DOD receives exactly for mental health treatment, with the most recent report, from 2020, showing about $31 million focused toward providing mental and physical therapy services in the military.

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But the sprawling nature of the military’s mental health support ecosystem doesn’t excuse the lack of upkeep. The military manages many complicated programs and initiatives, ranging from supplying its millions of troops, many in remote regions, to ensuring the security of its operations. There are systems in place to catch threats to operational security or sustainment. Surely if this were a priority, it could carry out an audit and create a system to actually make sure that the resources intended to provide for the mental health and welfare of service members are accessible and up to date—regardless of whether they are the territory of an installation, a service branch, or the DOD.

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But the poorly maintained websites are just a symptom of bigger problems with the military’s approach to mental health.

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Karin Orvis, the head of the Defense Suicide Prevention Office, claimed during a Senate Armed Forces committee hearing in April that the DOD’s adjusted suicide rate is comparable to the national average after accounting for age and sex differences, since the military’s population is younger with a higher population of males (risk factors for attempting suicide). But a study backed by the DOD’s own health agency in 2018 found that when the U.S. population was adjusted to match the Army’s, soldiers were dying by suicide at a higher rate than civilians. Indeed, the death by suicide rate for young service members in 2020 was well over double the rate for their age group and higher than all age demographics in the civilian population.

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When asked about the shortage of mental health specialists at a hearing a day before Orvis’, Gen. Mark Milley, the highest-ranking officer in the military, stated that squad leaders, who are usually aged 20–25 and lack psychological or medical training, were the mental health specialists for the teams they commanded. Milley’s confusing comments are especially troubling because they ignore the fact that it is often a service member’s own leadership who are the source of stressors—or act to prevent service members from getting care in the first place.

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In the past 20 years, the suicide rate among service members has skyrocketed, with more than 30,177 service members and veterans who served during the global war on terror alone dying due to suicide, four times the amount of troops lost in combat during the period. In the past five years, the suicide rate among active duty service members has increased by 41 percent. During 2020, the military suicide rate increased by 16 percent, while the nation’s suicide rate dropped by 6 percent. The suicide rate in the U.S. Army is the highest it has been in over 100 years. The suicide rate for women in the military is double their national average. For Black service members, it is almost triple the national demographic average.

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Some have theorized that high rates of gun ownership among service members and veterans may be a driver of this crisis. It’s true that access to a firearm puts suicide in much closer reach. But that alone cannot explain why the suicide rate for these active duty and veteran populations has surged past the national average since 2004, after decades of being roughly equivalent. Others have advanced claims that it’s due to failings by those who join the military themselves—a horrifying callback to the past, when many blamed mental issues on a lack of soldier discipline or bravery.

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Those outside the military might believe that mental health issues in the armed forces are all related to the trauma of taking part in armed conflict. There are many other ways military service can be traumatic, however.

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The USS George Washington has had 10 suicides among its crew in as many months. The sailors aboard the carrier have for years made note of uninhabitable living conditions like a lack of ventilation, running water, sleeping space, and a culture that does not prioritize mental health support—to no avail. Many attempted to use the ship’s digital suggestion box to make note of these issues but found that their leadership did not respond to the use of this forum much, if at all.

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The DOD didn’t announce a majority of the deaths until recently, and when the Navy’s top enlisted leader visited the ship in late April, afterward he told sailors that the conditions could have been worse and there was nothing he could do to help them. A week later, after a deluge of negative press, the Navy moved hundreds of sailors off the ship.

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According to one study, more than half of women and 35 percent of men in the military are affected by military sexual trauma, and 71 percent of female veterans seek PTSD treatment due to military sexual trauma suffered while serving. Another study analyzing 69 pieces of research found similar results. In May, a report from Military.com detailed how a female National Guard soldier was sexually harassed by members of her unit and then was failed by her leadership and the military justice system. Recently, the Army gave a slap on the wrist to an officer who motorboated a subordinate, his “punishment” being full retirement with pension and no prosecution.

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recent DOD survey found that nearly a third of Black service members reported experiencing racial discrimination, harassment, or both during a 12-month period, and decades of DOD efforts to stamp out bias and extremism in the ranks have been ineffective. This discrimination is evident at the highest levels of the military: An Army three-star general was recently relieved and replaced after an investigation into claims of him creating a racist and toxic environment, which included disparaging Black subordinates. If the general felt comfortable after decades in the service making such statements, what does that say about the norms of the system that continued to reward him and promote him? What effect did his behavior have on the mental health of service members of color?

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All of these stories and statistics make the broken links seem less like a problem of web maintenance and more like an indication that what the military says is a priority simply is not. I know what it is like to feel distressed and not know where to turn. I can only imagine being a Marine at Camp Pendleton who is looking for resources and calls the DSTRESS line and gets no answer, or a soldier at Fort Hood in crisis who finds resources from 2012.

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Yes, people can turn to other resources when that happens—but if you’re in a state of crisis, you shouldn’t have to click through several layers of links or find alternate routes to get help. If the military can prosecute wars across the entire planet, it can keep its websites updated.

​​If you need to talk, or if you or someone you know is experiencing suicidal thoughts, text the Crisis Text Line at 741-741 or call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. Service members and veterans can also reach out to the Military Crisis Line at 1-800-273-8255 (press 1) or its online chat.

State of Mind is a partnership of Slate and Arizona State University that offers a practical look at our mental health system—and how to make it better.

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