FAYETTEVILLE, N.C. (WTVD) -- On World Mental Health Day, the Department of Defense released data showing an alarming rise in suicides in the military.
The rise is staggering: the Department of Defense reports there has been a 40% increase in suicides from 2015 to 2020 among active-duty service members. The rates shot up by 15% in 2020 alone. Experts say the pandemic is definitely one of the reasons why, but it's more than that.
"(A)s time has gone on, we've seen a really difficult struggle in the work field specifically in the mental health work field where there are just not enough providers for the help that's needed, and for the work that needs to be done. So, I think a lot of people get discouraged, ending up on waiting lists," said Miranda Briggs, the president and CEO of Fight The War Within.
"(T)hey were no stranger to these difficult times that that held, the tragedy that that was," said Jennifer Smith, the director of the Steven A. Cohen Military Family Clinic. "Many of them deployed stateside for numerous tasks and duties that we were not privy to as civilians, and so that's definitely played a part in that."
Veteran Ricky Johnson also notes that former service members can struggle with their identity, and by extension their mental health, after leaving the military.
"That was a pinnacle of our career, the pinnacle of our life. We had responsibility, purpose. We were in a top physical condition. We were respected. Take that away from people, you know, a lot of individuals have a hard time transitioning through that."
Briggs lost her husband, a veteran, to suicide, back in 2018, just days after their daughter was born. She says she is heartbroken because despite her husband's cries for help, his service providers brushed them to the side. Losing him inspired her to create her suicide prevention organization, Fight The War Within.
"We need to start thinking about what we do outside of that installation as a community. How can we start to invite and include active duty, to know that there are resources outside of your chain of command? Outside of the protocol that you may feel you have to--you know you have to go through. If that is preventing you from getting care that's not OK," Briggs said.
Johnson notes suicide isn't just an issue for service members, but also for their families. Johnson lost his son to suicide in 2015. It's a loss Johnson in part attributes to his own battles with drugs after being in the service. He says he wants his story to teach other people how individuals' poor conduct impacts the mental health of those around them. He says fighting suicide has to be a community effort:
"We have to come together to, you know. Communicate, have empathy, have compassion...We all need connection. We all need to feel like we matter to somebody."
Last month, President Biden outlined a strategy specifically targeting suicide prevention. The Army also put out new guidelines to commanders on addressing mental health in the ranks. Veteran Affairs drew awareness to its counseling services by issuing a statement saying in part:
"A top clinical priority is preventing suicide among ALL Veterans - including those who do not, and may never, seek care within the VA health care system. Veterans in mental health crisis are encouraged to get help right away. There is help."
The VA encourages active and former service members to call the Veterans Crisis Line if they're struggling with their mental health. It's open 24/7, and family members and caregivers for veterans can also call if they need support.