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 and McCarthy held their media briefing.

“I’m not going to speak for the other members. Each one, depending on the advice of their doctors … is executing CDC guidelines,” McConville said.

He added that while military officials take the illness “very, very seriously,” there are scenarios where they must be present and unable to work from home.

“As leaders there’s things that we have to do in person. … We have to be able to operate in this environment, so we take the threat very seriously and we use the mechanisms that are in place and so far that has worked out for us.”

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