Learning from Tragedy, Part 1: Tracking Suicide in the U.S. Military

This three-part series describes the Department of Defense Suicide Event Report (DoDSER) system that collects and analyzes data on U.S. military deaths by suicide, as well as data on suicide attempts. The National Center for Telehealth & Technology (T2) compiles these data into an annual report for military leadership that is available to the public. This initial blog describes how the DoDSER came to exist.

It’s difficult to think about losing anyone to suicide. And regardless of increases or decreases in suicide rates for a given year, one suicide is too many.

Suicide is an issue that the military — especially the Army — has tracked for a long time. For example, during World Wars I and II, Army suicide rates decreased significantly compared to pre-war levels. Generally, we tend to think of our service men and women as a relatively healthy segment of our population. After all, they have to pass basic enlistment criteria, engage in routine health and wellness screenings, have free access to medical and behavioral health care, engage in routine physical exercise, and so on.

But, the data captured during the recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan shows a different pattern. The rate of suicide among our service members, which was lower than that of the general U.S. population, almost doubled between 2005 and 2012. Currently, the suicide rate is stabilized, meaning that it hasn’t increased. But it hasn’t gone back down either, and the current rate of suicide across the military services suggests that for every 100,000 service members, approximately 20 will take their own life. The rate of suicide in the military is now indistinguishable from the portion of the American public that shares the same demographic characteristics as our service members.

How do we track these changes? In 2006, just as the suicide rate for the military increased unexpectedly, experts in the Defense Department decided they needed a new approach to track the occurrence of suicide across the services. The systems in place at the time were service-specific and the data captured varied. It became clear that simply tracking the number of deaths, though necessary, was not enough to tackle the increasing rates of suicide in the military.

Not long afterward, the Department of Defense Suicide Event Report (DoDSER) system was developed. This surveillance system collects data on 100 percent of military deaths by suicide, as well as any suicide attempt that results in hospitalization or evacuation from a theater of operations, regardless of service or component. The system uses a web-based data collection tool that authorized users can access anywhere in the world at any time of day. It standardizes the information collected so that the same data is gathered regardless of military branch. The DoDSER system tracks active-duty service members, reservists and members of the National Guard.

In the second part of this series, I’ll explain what information the DoDSER system collects and more about the methodology used to understand the risk factors for suicide.

If you, or someone you know, have thoughts of suicide, please reach out for help immediately:

  • Dial 9-1-1 or go to your closest emergency room.
  • Call the Military Crisis Line at 800-273-8255. If you are a service member or veteran, Press 1 to talk to someone who has served.
  • Start a confidential online chat session at http://www.VeteransCrisisLine.net/chat.
  • Send a text message to 838255 to connect to a VA responder.
  • If you are deaf or hard of hearing, you can connect through chat, text or TTY.

Larry Pruitt, Ph.D. is a licensed clinical psychologist and the program supervisor for the DoD Suicide Event Report (DoDSER) program at the National Center for Telehealth & Technology (T2)

The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the National Center for Telehealth & Technology, the Defense Centers of Excellence for Psychological Health & Traumatic Brain Injury, the Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.


Read other posts by Dr. Larry Pruitt