Home » Military Personnel » Navy Sees Sudden Rise in Suicide Rate Since 2015; Unclear on Causes

Navy Sees Sudden Rise in Suicide Rate Since 2015; Unclear on Causes

A sailor plays ‘Taps.’ US Navy Photo

THE PENTAGON – Over the past two years, the number of active duty sailors who committed suicide grew rapidly at a time the overall number of active duty service members taking their lives increased more modestly, according to data from the Department of Defense obtained by USNI News.

The sudden death of U.S. 5th Fleet Commander Vice Adm. Scott Stearney in what is an apparent suicide is part of a troubling trend for the service. During 2017 and the first half of this year, the Navy reported an increase in the number of sailors taking their own lives, and service officials haven’t been able to pin down a cause for the increase.

Between 2012 – when the DoD’s Defense Suicide Prevention Office started publishing suicide data – and 2016, the Navy’s suicide rates tracked below the DoD average rate and generally mirrored DoD’s year-to-year ups and downs. In 2017, though, the Navy saw 66 active duty sailors – a 53 percent spike compared to the year before – commit suicide, according to statistics collected by the Defense Suicide Prevention Office. During the first half of 2018, 36 active-duty sailors committed suicides, according to the most recent numbers provided to USNI News. The six-month total suggests the Navy is on track to finish 2018 with a number of suicides similar to 2017’s six-year high.

When compared to other services, the Navy’s 2017 active duty suicide rate of 21.4 per 100,000 sailors was in line with the suicide rates experienced by the other military branches (Army 24.9, Air Force 20.3, Marine Corps 24), according to USNI News calculations using the DoD suicide rate calculation formula. Nationally, the 2017 suicide rate was 14 per 100,000 U.S. residents, according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention calculation.

USNI News Graphic

However, before 2017, the Navy’s recent suicide rates had been lower than the DoD rates, even matching the much lower rates for the U.S. general population. In 2016, the Navy’s active duty suicide rate was 15.9 per 100,000 sailors, compared to a DoD active duty rate of 21.1 per 100,000 active duty service members and a national rate of 13.4 suicides per 100,000 Americans. The Navy’s 2015, 2014, 2013, and 2012 rates were also lower than the DoD rates. In 2013 and 2015, the Navy’s active duty suicide rates were essentially the same as the national general public rates of 12.6 and 13.3 per 100,000, respectively.

The Navy isn’t sure why more sailors are taking their own lives. In terms of a longer-term trend, because the publicly available data only goes back to 2012, it’s not clear how the recent rates and the 2015-2017 spike fit into larger historical trends.

* From Jan. 1, 2018 to Jun 30, 2018. USNI News Graphic



“The Navy’s suicide rate has fluctuated over the years, with no single cause for the fluctuations. Nor is there a single theory or study to address fluctuation in any specific year or time frame,” Capt. Tara Smith, a subject matter expert assigned to Navy’s Suicide Prevention Branch (OPNAV N171), told USNI News in an email.

What is known, Smith added, is the suicide rates among the youth and middle age adults have been steadily rising throughout the U.S., according to statistics collected in a 2018 study by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). The Navy has identified contributing factors, such as strained and failing relationships, career loss and legal problems, and unreported and untreated mental illness.

Nationally, 44,173 Americans took their lives in 2017, a 7-percent increase from the 44,193 suicides reported in 2015, according to CDC statistics. DoD reported 287 active duty military suicides 2017, an 8-percent increase from 2015 when DoD reported 266 active duty suicides.

Addressing the Problem

Sailors stand at attention in formation in the hangar bay of the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN-72). US Navy Photo

Navy leadership responded to the current trend by completely overhauling its suicide prevention policy, releasing OPNAV Instruction 1720.4B in September, Smith told USNI News.

“The Navy has been actively addressing the interpersonal problems of suicide through our updated policies, programs and training,” Smith said. “The new Suicide Prevention Instruction, OPNAVINST 1720.4B, strengthens suicide prevention training and targets lethal means access, building healthy relationships and connectedness, and reducing barriers to help-seeking.”

Identifying individuals who are at risk of taking their lives, though, can present a challenge for the military.

“Researchers found that more than half of people who died by suicide did not have a known diagnosed mental health condition at the time of death,” the 2018 CDC study states. “Relationship problems or loss; substance misuse; physical health problems; and job, money, legal or housing stress often contributed to risk for suicide. Firearms were the most common method of suicide used by those with and without a known diagnosed mental health condition.”

The Navy’s revamped suicide prevention program focuses on creating a system for commands to identify and provide treatment to at-risk sailors before they attempt suicide. All members of the Navy, both active duty and reservists, are to attend suicide prevention training. Commands are to have suicide prevention program managers to help guide individuals considered to be at risk to mental health treatment.

“Our Every Sailor, Every Day campaign is designed to educate and empower sailors to practice ongoing self-care, as well as lethal means safety during times of increased stress,” Smith said, referring to the Navy suicide prevention program. “It also encourages seeking help by sharing real-life experiences of sailors who have reached out, completed treatment and thrived in their careers, as well as policy-related facts that dispel misperceptions about negative career impacts.”

The Navy’s leadership also wants to create an environment where all active duty personnel balance their work and personal lives. Earlier in the fall, Vice Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Bill Moran told all flag officers they were required to take ten consecutive days of leave each year.

Moran issued the verbal command to take vacations because of a concern too many of the Navy’s leaders were at risk of burning-out, Chief of Naval Personnel Vice Adm. Robert Burke said during the recent Naval Submarine League annual symposium. The Navy hopes enlisted and officers will follow the flag officer examples and also take leave.

“Preventing suicide in the Navy is an all-hands responsibility. Each life lost is one too many,” the new guidance signed by Burke says.

Not the First Time

US Navy Photo

Professional success often masks underlying mental health issues, said Keita Franklin, the national suicide prevention in the Veterans Administration’s Office of Mental Health and Suicide Prevention. Franklin spoke about suicide among veterans recently at a Brookings Institute panel discussion focused on veteran’s health issues.

“This is not an E-1 to E-4 issue. It’s a multi-generational issue,” Franklin said.

As examples, Franklin cited the suicides of Kate Spade, the founder and former owner of the Kate Spade brand, and Anthony Bourdain, the celebrity chef, author, and television culinary documentarian. Both Spade and Bourdain were very successful people who ended their lives in 2018.

In May 1996, shortly before a scheduled interview with a reporter from Newsweek, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jeremy Boorda shot himself in the chest at his home at the Navy Yard in Washington, D.C.

The suicide of the Navy’s top officer caught the entire military community by surprise. An ensuing investigation by the Naval Criminal Investigative Service made no conclusions about why he killed himself.

However, at the time Boorda took his life, the Navy was facing several challenges, according to media accounts. The Navy was contending with the fall-out from the 1991 assault of dozens of women at the annual Tailhook convention of naval aviators, sexual assault allegations faced by several senior naval officers, a cheating and drug use scandal at the U.S. Naval Academy, and questions about the training and maintenance of F-14 Tomcats after several crashes. The Navy did not release two notes left by Boorda.

The Navy’s new suicide prevention guidance acknowledges warning signs might not be apparent and too often sailors in times of personal crisis do not realize there is help available. The policy seeks to establish a culture where commands reach out to individuals, and sailors experiencing a personal crisis know help is available.

“Each life lost is one too many. Navy policy, consistent with Department of Defense policy, requires leaders to foster command climates that promote health and a sense of community, remove barriers to seeking help, increase awareness of resources, and take appropriate action when a sailor is in need,” the policy states.

Suicide Prevention Resources

The Navy Suicide Prevention Handbook is a guide designed to be a reference for policy requirements, program guidance, and educational tools for commands. The handbook is organized to support fundamental command Suicide Prevention Program efforts in Training, Intervention, Response, and Reporting.

The 1 Small ACT Toolkit helps sailors foster a command climate that supports psychological health. The toolkit includes suggestions for assisting sailors in staying mission ready, recognizing warning signs of increased suicide risk in oneself or others, and taking action to promote safety.

The Lifelink Monthly Newsletter provides recommendations for sailors and families, including how to help survivors of suicide loss and to practice self-care.

The Navy Operational Stress Control Blog “NavStress” provides sailors with content promoting stress navigation and suicide prevention:

NavStress social media:

Facebook: www.facebook.com/navstress

Twitter: www.twitter.com/navstress

Flickr: www.flickr.com/photos/navstress

  • Curtis Conway

    I wonder if there is a correlation with the Navy’s policies concerning treatment of Chaplains?

  • Brandon Stiles

    It’s probably due to the fact you can’t trust anyone to seek help from because they are afraid of reprisal or looking weak. They would probably be told to just get back to work.

    • Leatherstocking

      Agreed. Nothing is kept private and and everything is databased. I kept a couple of junior officers at my home for a few months each while they sorted out marital issues at home to keep things off the books – neither would avail themselves of counseling because of fear of the impact to their clearances and careers. We put our shipmates under extraordinary family, work and financial pressures yet provide them with less support than that available in the civilian world (which isn’t enough either). We all know the same issues occur on health in general – avoid the system or lose flying status, your career, etc. We’ll see if the investigation of VADM Stearney is as “inconclusive” as that of CNO Boorda. These Navy leaders, like all our shipmates deserve better.

      • Brandon Stiles

        I’ve sought out counseling before and it was so difficult to be able to go. I was literally told I couldn’t go by parts of my chain of command. Work always took priority. We had one therapist for our squadron, and when you made an appointment it was for months later, and God forbid that you waited that whole time and then ended up having duty and told you couldn’t go yet again. I believe the upper chain of command might have people in their best interest, but when it comes to the lower chain of command like your LPO, LCPO, and Div-O, getting the work done is all they think about. When it comes to me I’ll go over their head to get what I want, even to the captain if need be, but a more junior sailor definetly just gets bullied out of it.

        • Leatherstocking

          Glad you were persistent and got counseling. I’m not surprised that the chain let you down. Those people who reject coundeling for themselves and others are likely future suicide victims.

  • Tokyo Datum

    USNI – please verify/relook at this statement and correct as necessary: “Nationally, 44,173 Americans took their lives in 2017, a 7-percent increase from the 44,193 suicides reported in 2015, according to CDC statistics.” (how can 44,173 represent any increase over 44,193)

  • Curtis Conway

    When federal government and US Navy policies move to exclude and isolate expressions of faith from the faithful (against the 1st Amendment), treat Chaplains with lack of dignity and respect, and impose cumbersome policies upon them, then what do you expect? The last administration created such a lack of respect for a military members faith, that they actually considered creating a chaplain for the Atheist!?

    Many serve as a direct response to a Spiritual appeal from within by their Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, and serve the country and their fellow man in a Sacrificial manner, following the example set by our Savior over 2,000 years ago.
    The solution to the suicide problem in the Navy is encapsulated in that Sacrificial Service, and placing others before one’s self in the greater equation, for THAT is core of what service is.

    Concerning CNO Mike Boorda, there was a specific group who placed a lot of pressure upon him during this period, and the manner of his demise demanded greater scrutiny. That scrutiny did not come. This specific incident defined faith, forgiveness, and friendship in some, and brought out the worse (ambition & hatred) in others at the same time.

    The Navy is a TEAM. It eats, sleeps, performs their duties and fights as a team. No one can accomplish the mission without the TEAM. It is not a team member who . . . will not maintain the bubble (situational awareness) . . . see to their duties (safeguard the ship and crew at all times) . . . and literally watch another vessel run into own ship . . . and have never made a Ch 16 broadcast, passed the word, or sounded “COLLISION”! THAT navy is not My Navy.

    • Brandon Stiles

      I’m not really sure what you’re talking about when it comes to excluding and isolating expression of faith. I’ve never seen that anywhere. And I also don’t see what is so preposterous about having a chaplain/ley leader for atheist. Being one my self, it would be nice to come together as a group and just discuss how we feel about things. I have never been one to tell someone, or down them for any type of religious or spiritual belief. But they way you say thinks is almost oppressive to other religions not of your faith.

      • Curtis Conway

        Obviously you have been staying away from the headlines concerning this subject for over a decade. The last administration was very hostile to expressions of faith in uniform, even to the point of limiting the activities of all Clergy (Chaplains) in uniform. It was down right oppressive.

        Now, the effect of said policy can be felt immediately, but greater systemic effects are felt down stream in time. THAT is what we are experiencing IMHO.

        • Brandon Stiles

          Well being in the navy for only 8 years and not being one to follow any of that stuff, I’m not afraid to say that I am ignorant of that. I don’t understand how you connect limiting chaplains expressions of faith to the suicide rate across the navy though.

          • muzzleloader

            Brandon, the entire purpose of the chaplain corps is to minister to the spiritual needs of the military men and women in their command. Meeting spiritual needs is done chiefly via the scriptures of the Bible and/or the Tora.
            You say you are atheist, so what is being described here seems probably disconnected to you.
            But for people of faith, a minister can bring great comfort, fortification, and guidance.
            B.O. was a President who had contempt for Christianity and faith, to the point he refused to even say Creator when quoting the nation’s founding documents. Under his presidency, chaplains were not allowed to minister scripture because it conflicted his agenda. Some chaplains were actually relieved of thier offices. They were to a great extent, reduced to being political officers rather then ministers, and our sailors soldiers and airmen have paid for it.
            I am not saying that the suicides taking place are due to what Curtis and I are talking here, but I have no doubt that it is a factor.

          • Brandon Stiles

            So while I wait for my appointment with my chaplain to discuss these things with him so I can learn more about it, what exactly is a chaplain not allowed to do that you are saying they should be able to do?

          • Curtis Conway

            Ask him when you see him. Twenty years ago the Chaplaincy was an entirely different kind of organization with freedom of movement, expression, and filling obvious Spiritual needs. Less so today. The ‘powers that be’ have replaced the Supremacy of G-d, and restricted the Chaplaincy in a very oppressive way.

          • Brandon Stiles

            You are not being very helpful to this discussion when you refuse to explain your side. You just keep making claims without explanation to someone that is trying to understand

          • Curtis Conway

            I’m not a Chaplain in the US Armed Services. However, if you are serious about investigating this, then start with an audience with more than one chaplain from more than one service, and make sure you have a Rabbi in the that group. Tell them you are looking for how the Chaplaincy has changed in the last 20 years. They can fill you in on the changes in mission set for Chaplains in the US Armed Services. This last sentence should strike you as ODD. They have a mission set established by the Creator, and need not man change it. They are Shepherds for their flock wherever it is.
            However, you can conduct only the most cursory search of recent headlines about the Chaplaincy across all services, and you will find quite a diverse number of stories on this subject. Chaplains are volunteers, and know what their task is. Chaplaincy orientation and the military qualifications training is what they must complete over and above that.

          • Curtis Conway

            Like in that ‘AVATAR’ quote: “It is hard to fill a cup that is already full” . . . one cannot inform someone else about someone . . . who already knows (has made up their mind). The three elements of our Faith is the manifestations of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (which resides in you). If the Holy Spirit does not reside in you . . . you will not understand this to any extent. It’s not Gnosticism, or secret, it is as real . . . as are the feelings you have. It is the core of our actions, empathy, thought processes, spontaneity . . . which shows us (US) and G-d, WHO YOU ARE! If people do not see Jesus in you, then you have not studied Him!

            Faith can wain in some during times of trouble. The mission of the Chaplain (as it is for all Christians) is to minister to all, but particularly to those who are struggling. The very motto of our Special Forces is “De Opresso Liber” (To liberate the oppressed). The very core of this expression comes from Our Deep Faith, and desires to stand against Satanic Powers (Evil). Secular Humanist to not believe Evil exist . . . Once again . . . a cup that is already full.

          • Brandon Stiles

            You are off your rocker old man. If you don’t think I’ve studied the bible and your religion along with many others, your mistaken. you’ll quote avatar because there isn’t a quote in the bible that says the same thing. You’re just being a hypocrite.

          • Curtis Conway

            Hear Oh Israel, love the LORD your G-d with all your heart, soul, and might, and love your neighbor as yourself. Keep loving brother!

  • Curtis Conway

    Leadership is not leadership is it forgets that the most important element in the equation is their people, for without them one cannot accomplish the mission. Take care of your people, and your people will take care of the tasking. If it does not turn out to be so, you did not train them, or you hired the wrong people.

  • RogCol

    Coincidence that the suicide rate increases consistent with the opioid policies? It would be interesting to see how many SMs had problems in this area.

    • Brandon Stiles

      What do you mean?

  • Ruckweiler

    Too many long deployments?

  • William DeFeline

    A key statistic they don’t mention would be number of suicides per 100,000 in the general population of military age males, not in the service. Counting everyone in General population is meaningless.