Stress amid COVID-19 leads to increase in military suicides

Dr. Craig Gilbert, 436th Airlift Wing violence prevention counselor, hosts a Wingman Intervention: Sexual Assault Prevention and Response/Suicide Prevention class as part of the Fall Wingman Day Series at Dover Air Force Base.

DOVER — Many military members have struggled with the multitude of challenges they face in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, as military suicides have increased by as much as 20% this year, according to The Associated Press.

Other incidents of violent behavior have also increased, as service members have had to continuously grapple with the pandemic, war zone deployments, national disasters and civil unrest.

“COVID adds stress,” said Gen. Charles Brown, the Air Force chief, in public remarks. “From a suicide perspective, we are on a path to be as bad as last year. And that’s not just an Air Force problem. This is a national problem, because COVID adds some additional stressors — a fear of the unknown for certain folks.”

The active-duty Air Force and reserves had 98 suicides as of Sept. 15, unchanged from the same period last year. But 2019 was the worst in three decades for active-duty Air Force suicides. Officials had hoped the decline early in 2020 would continue.

While Dover Air Force Base officials would not reveal any specific information pertaining to suicides or violent incidents at the facility, they did say they have been proactive at getting ahead of the added stress that weighs on the airmen as they are often forced to leave their families for weeks at a time.

“We know there are significant stressors associated with the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Mental Health Flight Commander Maj. Mark Noakes of the 436th Medical Group Operational Medical Readiness Squadron. “For many, this pandemic may not be the primary stressor but could amplify other stressors; although it has led to increased stress, for many, it has also led to new ways of receiving care and support.

“We’ve heard examples of airmen finding proactive ways to reach out to one another. The pandemic has definitely altered our way of life and has challenged airmen to find creative ways to adapt. Leaders around the base have made communication a top priority, and there have been tangible efforts to provide airmen with information and resources through social media, command chains and other channels.”

Mental Health Flight Commander Maj. Mark Noakes of the 436th Medical Group Operational Medical Readiness Squadron said: “We know there are significant stressors associated with the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Maj. Noakes added that counseling resources at the base have maintained full operations, with many shifting to virtual capabilities during the stay-at-home orders. The Dover AFB Community Action Team, which is composed of all the helping agencies on base, continues to collaborate to provide support and prevention initiatives to improve the well-being of airmen and their families.

The major pointed to a recent example of that collaboration with the three-day “Wingman Day” series that included 34 classes and events (both virtually and in person with social distancing measures) aimed at building resilience, connectedness and community.

Also, throughout September, with the theme “Connect to Protect,” the base encouraged making meaningful connections through awareness initiatives and senior leadership engagement as part of National Suicide Prevention Month.

“In October, the local Family Advocacy Program is hosting a series of events to include its first-ever front-line leadership discussion aimed at teaching supervisors risk factors and warning signs identified in their airmen with hopes of early engagement and prevention of intimate and family violence,” said Dr. Mamie Futrell, community support coordinator for the Community Action Team.

“The Airman and Family Readiness Center continues to promote wellness and support through virtual classes with a variety of topics, ranging from coping with transitions, military spouses, stress management, etc.,” she said.

Dover AFB had quick response to pandemic

Dr. Craig Gilbert, violence prevention integrator for Dover AFB, said the Violence Prevention Integration Office was prepared to address the pandemic early and he believes that helped greatly as the COVID-19 outbreak quickly grew.

“Within three days of the shift to a COVID-19 stay-at-home posture for nonessential personnel, Air Mobility Command began funneling information and tools to base violence prevention integrators to promote resilience and safety and remind military members and their families of available helping resources,” Dr. Gilbert said. “This included contact information for Military One Source, the Employee Assistance Program and military family life counselors.

“Dover Air Force Base’s VPI office worked with base leadership and the first sergeants to distribute the resources to base personnel. Topics for the VPI initiatives included ‘Coping With Stress During Infectious Disease Outbreaks,’ ‘How to Help Staff Members in Distress During an Infectious Outbreak,’ ‘Response to Feeling Stresses During COVID-19,’ ‘Resilience in Uncertain Times,’ ‘Physical Distancing’ and ‘Social Connection Instead of Social Distancing,’” he said.

Dr. Gilbert said that after recognizing that a lack of connectedness can lead to significant distress, in early April, AMC pushed out guidance for helping airmen with “connectedness conversation starters” and followed up with additional information sheets and flyers on how to deal with boredom and manage stress related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

In May, AMC provided VPIs “We Care … We Connect” resources with topics such as seeing oneself as valuable and being caring, followed in June with the topic of being inspired. The information flow to airmen continued throughout the summer, and in August, the base partnered with the Delaware Military and Veteran Mental Health Summit, so information on the summit could be distributed to base personnel.

During that event, Dr. Gilbert facilitated two virtual training classes for participants on a cognitive approach to resilience.

Chaplain (Capt.) Andre Davis of the 436th Airlift Wing said he also believes that addressing the emotional stress issues for airmen at the outbreak of the pandemic proved beneficial for Dover AFB.

“We remained engaged with our squadrons from the beginning, partnering with squadron leadership to provide for airmen,” Chaplain Davis said. “From the moment we were allowed to return from telework, the chaplains were back in their squadrons. We have creatively continued to offer Sunday worship services, initially through prerecorded messages in unique work areas (the isochronal maintenance dock, the aerial port conference room, the AMC Museum control tower, etc.) and then in person outdoors,” he said.

The Dover AFB’s worship services move back indoors starting Sunday.

Staff Sgt. Brandon Frank, 436th Logistics Readiness Squadron material manager, prepares to start the “fastest human” quarter-mile sprint during the Fall Wingman Day Series in mid-September at Dover Air Force Base. The Wingman Day Series focused on reflecting and connecting through strengthening mental and physical skills. U.S. Air Force/Airman 1st Class Faith Schaefer

The chaplain added that during the COVID-19 crisis, the Dover AFB Chapel has offered “several socially responsible and engaging opportunities, including events for airmen, dinner-and-a-teaching events for couples, marriage retreats and men’s events.”

“We continue to see airmen for counseling 24/7, with a duty chaplain on standby after duty hours — who’s only a call away,” Chaplain Davis said. “During COVID-19, we have provided several leadership and interpersonal offerings, including race relations small groups, worship sessions and leadership workshops.”

Head Chaplain (Lt. Col.) Abner Valenzuela of the 436th Airlift Wing said the chapel wanted to reach out to all the airmen and let them know the worship facility was there for them.

“As far as the chapel is concerned, what we would really like to communicate to our airmen and their families is that we care,” Chaplain Valenzuela said. “Hopefully, our staff reflects this, in our daily interactions with people and through the programs and events we lead. It is not easily quantifiable, but I believe our unique contribution is, we foster hope, especially during stressful or troubled times.”

Michael Pepper, director of the 436th Air Force Support Squadron’s Airman and Family Readiness Center, said his group is there to provide a road map to vital services that airmen under stress are seeking.

“It (military and family life counseling) was designed to provide nonmedical, results-based, short-term counseling for a variety of issues that come up across the military life cycle,” Mr. Pepper said. “The idea is to have counselors here to prevent smaller issues from becoming larger issues, which not only affect families but also the readiness aspect to the mission.

“Every commander, first sergeant and front-line supervisor needs to know that military and family life counseling is here, and they’re here for a reason. If the supervisor doesn’t feel comfortable talking about an issue or they feel the individual would benefit from MFLC, refer them here. Of course, you can always just come to the AFRC, and we’ll make sure you get to the right place.”

Effect of COVID-19 on other military branches

Senior Army leaders, who say they’ve seen about a 30% jump in active-duty suicides so far this year, told The Associated Press that they are looking at shortening combat deployments in response to COVID-19 stress. Such a move would be part of a broader effort to make the well-being of soldiers and their families the Army’s top priority, overtaking combat readiness and weapons modernization.

The Pentagon refused to provide 2020 data or discuss the issue, but Army officials said discussions in Defense Department briefings indicate there has been up to a 20% jump in overall military suicides this year. The numbers vary by service.

The active Army’s 30% spike — from 88 last year to 114 this year — pushes the total up because it’s the largest service. The Army Guard is up about 10%, going from 78 last year to 86 this year. The Navy total is believed to be lower this year. Navy and Marine officials refused to discuss the subject with the AP.

Army leaders say they can’t directly pin the increase on the virus, but the timing coincides.

“I can’t say scientifically, but what I can say is, I can read a chart and a graph, and the numbers have gone up in behavioral health-related issues,” Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy said in an AP interview.

Pointing to increases in Army suicides, murders and other violent behavior, he added: “We cannot say definitively it is because of COVID. But there is a direct correlation from when COVID started, the numbers actually went up.”

Preliminary data for the first three months of 2020 show an overall dip in military suicides across the active duty and reserves, compared to the same time last year. Those early numbers, fueled by declines in Navy and Air Force deaths, gave hope to military leaders who have long struggled to cut suicide rates. But in the spring, the numbers ticked up.

Civilian suicide rates have risen in recent years, but 2020 data isn’t available, so it’s difficult to compare with the military.

A Pentagon report on 2018 suicides said the military rate was roughly equivalent to that of the U.S. general population, after adjusting for the fact that the military is more heavily male and younger than the civilian population.

The 2018 rate for active-duty military was 24.8 per 100,000, while the overall civilian rate for that year was 14.2, but the rate for younger civilian men ranged from 22.7 to 27.7 per 100,000, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.
James Helis, director of the Army’s resilience programs, said virus-related isolation, financial disruptions, remote schooling and loss of child care all happening almost overnight has strained troops and families.

“We know that the measures we took to mitigate and prevent the spread of COVID could amplify some of the factors that could lead to suicide,” said Mr. Helis, who attended department briefings on suicide data.

Army leaders also said troops have been under pressure for nearly two decades of war. Those deployments, compounded by the virus, hurricane and wildfire response and civil-unrest missions, have taken a toll.

Military vets also stressed during pandemic

Vince Kane, director of the Wilmington Veterans Affairs Medical Center, said it has been reaching out to military veterans who are also feeling the stresses that come amid the coronavirus crisis.

“These are unprecedented times, which have caused additional stress to our veteran community,” Mr. Kane said. “Depression, anxiety, anger, fear, substance abuse and increases in PTSD symptoms can intensify as we battle COVID-19. Social isolation and unrest, changes in employment, economic and relational distress, child care issues, social disconnection and the uncertainty of the virus all impact our sense of well-being.

“During the pandemic, we at Wilmington VA Medical Center have worked tirelessly through proactive outreach to encourage veterans to not delay essential health care — especially mental health care. We are here for our veteran community and have resources available. We have utilized virtual care visits more than ever to increase access to care and encourage veterans to reach out to address mental health care needs.”

Mr. Kane added: “The most important part is that treatment works and makes a difference in not only a veteran’s life, but his or her family’s, too. There is no shame in reaching out for help when needed, and we implore anybody who needs to talk to somebody to get the help they need.”

Veterans in crisis should connect with the Veterans Crisis Line 24/7 to reach caring, qualified responders by calling (800) 273-8255, then pressing 1, or by texting 838255. Veterans and their families also can find resources at veteranscrisisline.net.

Veterans enrolled in VA health care at the Wilmington VA Medical Center can call (800) 461-8262 (Option 2) or use MyHealtheVet at myhealth.va.gov to schedule an in-person or virtual appointment.


Helpful Coronavirus links

Delaware Division of Health Coronavirus Page
CDC: About the Coronavirus Disease 2019
CDC: What to do if You Are Sick
Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center
AP News Coronavirus Coverage
Reopening Delaware: Resources for Businesses
Delaware Phase 2 guidance

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