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In a First, Pentagon Releases Data on Military Spouse and Child Suicides

In a First, Pentagon Releases Data on Military Spouse and Child Suicides
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This article by Patricia Kime first appeared on Military.com, the premier resource for the military and veteran community. 

In what was hailed as the Pentagon's first-ever report on military family suicides, the Defense Department said Thursday that 123 spouses and 63 children took their own lives in 2017.

According to the inaugural Department of Defense 2018 Annual Suicide Report, the 186 deaths included 122 among of active-duty personnel families, 29 among Reserve families and 35 within National Guard families.

Seventeen spouses were service members themselves.

The report said the calculated suicide rate for family members, which allows for comparison with other populations, was significantly lower than the rate for the general U.S. population in 2017, 6.8 per 100,000 military family members, compared with 14.5 per 100,000 persons.

[RELATED AT MILITARY.COM: Military Suicide Rates Hit Record High in 2018]

But the report also noted that the lower rate was not unexpected, given that military families trend younger than the general population.

The suicide rate for spouses was 11.5 deaths per 100,000, broken down into 9.1 per 100,000 for female spouses and 29.4 per 100,000 for males.

Pentagon analysts said those rates were comparable to age- and gender-adjusted rates of the U.S. population in 2017.

According to the report, the overall suicide rate for dependent children under age 23 was 3.8 per 100,000. Within that, the suicide rate for males was 5.2 per 100,000, lower than the rate for young men in the general population of 9.3 per 100,000.

The long-awaited report is the first to release data on military families, but without information from other years, "we do not have trends," said Elizabeth Van Winkle, the executive director for Force Resiliency in the Under Secretary of Defense for Military Personnel and Readiness.

But, she added, "our military families are one of our greatest assets and our efforts need to consider the unique challenges of military life."

The report is likely to disappoint those who have sought data on military family suicides for more than a decade. In 2010, Kristina Kaufmann, a former Army wife who now serves as CEO of the military and veterans advocacy group Code of Support Foundation, was among the first voices to call for the information, penning an editorial in The Washington Post expressing concern about military family suicides.

Kaufmann said at the time she had lost at least three friends to suicide and pushed Congress to ask the Pentagon for the data so programs could address the problem.

In 2014, Congress passed the fiscal 2015 National Defense Authorization Act, which required the Pentagon to standardize and collect data on suicides among military dependents.

The policy and data collection was to be implemented in mid-2015, according to the law.

Last year, Democratic Sens. Tim Kaine of Virginia and Patty Murray of Washington sent a letter to the Defense Department last year asking for the data.

They asked DoD to release any information it had on dependent suicide.

"We know these suicides occur, but there is presently a lack of information necessary to understand, prevent, and respond to these tragedies," they wrote.

Pentagon officials said Thursday that the report contained data from 2017 because that is the most recent year data is available from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on the general population.

"Our civilian data follows the CDC's same time frame in terms of releasing data ... the effort is to provide the most current data," Van Winkle said.

Also according to the report, the means of suicide in more than half the deaths of both spouses and dependents was a firearm -- 54% of spouse suicides and 51% of dependent suicides.

The use of a weapon by female military spouses in suicides is a departure from behavior in the general population, where the leading method of suicide in 2017 for women was poison or a drug overdose (31.4%), followed closely by firearm (31.2%), and then asphyxiation or hanging (27.9%).

Winkle said the Pentagon is working on initiatives to increase awareness among military personnel and family members of the risk factors for suicide so they can recognize when they, or others, need help.

"We're also developing initiatives on safe storage of lethal means, that is, safely storing medications and firearms to ensure family safety and well as how to intervene in a crisis," she said.

The Military and Veterans Crisis Line is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, for veterans, service members and their families who need help. Call 800-273-8255 and press 1, text 838255, or visit www.veteranscrisisline.net.

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