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Army chief of staff: COVID-19 having effect on troop suicides

Army Chief of Staff Gen. James McConville said Tuesday that he sees a direct correlation between COVID-19 and the rise in troop suicides.

“I am very concerned about the behavioral health impacts of COVID and its effect on our soldiers,” McConville told reporters at the Pentagon.

“Some of the scientists have said they’ve not been able to show causation between COVID and suicide, but I would argue, at least my sense is, it is having an effect because it disconnects people.”

Army leadership has voiced concern about the increase in suicides in its ranks since March, when many people were told to stay home due to the coronavirus pandemic and the Pentagon began to limit movement of forces.

The Associated Press first reported last month that military suicide deaths since early spring were up as much as 20 percent compared with the same period in 2019. Among Army active-duty troops, that increase was around 30 percent, with 114 suicides as of Aug. 31, compared to 88 last year.

July saw the most suicides at 35 – more than one a day.

Following the report’s release, Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy and McConville said that the service has moved to improve access to behavioral health care “in the face of additional stress of a pandemic.”

But officials have been hesitant to link COVID-19 to the increase in military members taking their own life. 

Earlier this month, Defense Suicide Prevention Office Director Karin Orvis told reporters that it was too early to make a connection, as suicide counts “do not account for changes in population size or provide enough time for essential investigations to determine cause of death.”

McConville, however, said when looking at the after-action reports of soldiers who have died of suicide, “it tends to be situations where relationships have gone bad, where they start to feel that they don’t belong, that they’re a burden,” a feeling that can be amplified in the time of a pandemic.

With COVID-19, “especially during the beginning part, people were disconnected. The connection might only be a text between a leader and that’s why in some ways we thought it was very, very important to get back to training our soldiers, bringing teams back together to that they can take care of each other,” he added.

Asked if he partly blamed the pandemic-imposed lockdown across much of the country this spring for the rise in soldier suicides, McCarthy, who spoke alongside McConville, said he couldn’t “categorically say that.”

“We’re concerned about the isolation and that’s we’re trying to find effective ways to communicate with each other,” McCarthy said.

McConville, who himself just completed a self-imposed quarantine after possibly being exposed to the illness in a senior level meeting, said he tested negative for the virus multiple times in the past two weeks, including Tuesday morning, and was cleared by doctors to return to the Pentagon.

Chief of Naval Operations Michael Gilday, meanwhile, chose to do a press event from home at the same time McConville

Pentagon urges caution in linking steep increase in Army suicides to pandemic

“It’s too early to determine whether suicide rates will increase for calendar year 2020,” said Dr. Karin A. Orvis, director of the Defense Suicide Prevention Office, at a briefing that made public the Pentagon’s suicide rates for 2019. “We’ll need to have the full year of data and investigations completed to determine the cause of death.”

“What may be looking like an increasing or decreasing trend in raw counts may not be statistically meaningful once we have all the data,” said Orvis.

Through Aug. 31, there has been a 30% increase in the number of active-duty Army deaths by suicide, with 114 deaths compared to the 88 through that same time frame in 2019, a defense official told ABC News. The total number through Aug. 31 increases to 200 including Army National Guard and Reserve suicides, up from 166 for the same period in 2019, said the official.

The increase in Army suicides was first reported by The Associated Press.

PHOTO: Members of the military attend a ceremony at Andrews Air Force Base, Md., Dec. 20, 2019.

Members of the military attend a ceremony at Andrews Air Force Base, Md., Dec. 20, 2019.

Members of the military attend a ceremony at Andrews Air Force Base, Md., Dec. 20, 2019.

With only a slight increase in the number of active-duty suicides during the first three months of 2020, the bulk of the 30% increase occurred during the spring and summer months that correlates to when the novel coronavirus pandemic was at its peak.

The increase has also translated to an increase in the suicide rate of 36 per 100,000 individuals, through Aug. 3, from 30.6 per 100,000 the year before, according to the official.

But Orvin stressed that the full annual rate is what is needed to make a full assessment of the year’s trends in the military overall. Current numbers for the other services do not indicate a spike like the Army. For example, the 98 total Air Force deaths by suicide this year (including guard, reserves and civilians) are comparable to last year’s, and the 34 active-duty Navy suicides are on pace to be lower than last year. The Marine Corps did not provide current statistics for this year.

“We have seen in the past that at times, where it looks like if we were just looking at counts, there may have been an increase, but once we had the full years of data, it was not statistically significant,” said Orvin.

The Army National Guard said in a separate briefing that the number of suicides in its ranks through Oct. 1 is comparable to last year’s numbers.

“Caution should be used when examining changes