Service Member Suicides Drop in 2021; Air Force Posts Significant Decline

The total number and rate of suicides among service members, particularly among Active-duty troops, declined from 2020 to 2021, the Pentagon announced in its annual suicide report released Oct. 20—a small sign of progress amid a general upward trend over the past decade.

In particular, the Air Force—including the Space Force—recorded a sizable drop, going from 82 suicides among Active-duty Airmen and Guardians in 2020 to 51 this past year; and posting the lowest rate among the services.

Still, officials pledged to move forward with a “comprehensive and integrated” suicide prevention strategy, as more than 500 troops died by suicide for the fifth consecutive year.

“While we are cautiously encouraged by the drop in these numbers, one year is not enough time to assess real change,” Beth Foster, the executive director of the Pentagon’s office for force resiliency, told reporters in a briefing accompanying the report’s release. “The year-to-year trend provides helpful preliminary insight, but there is still a gradual increasing trend for suicide in the military over a 10-year period. And we need to see a sustained long-term reduction in suicide rates to know if we are making progress.”

All told, 519 service members died by suicide in 2021 compared to 582 reported a year ago. Similarly, the rate of suicides per 100,000 individuals declined across all three components—Active, Guard, and Reserve. Most strikingly, the Active-duty component rate fell from 28.7 in 2020 to 24.3 in 2021.

However, those declines didn’t change the overall trend of increasing rates dating back to 2011, which the report found to be statistically significant.

Both the general trend upward over time and the decline in the past year were largely driven by the rate of suicides among Active-duty troops, officials said—the Guard and Reserve components have fluctuated over time but shown no statistically significant trend.

Every service showed an increase in the suicide rate among Active-duty troops from 2011 to 2021, but only the Air Force had a statistically significant drop from 2020 to 2021, going from 24.6 suicides per 100,000 individuals to 15.3. 

The Navy and Marine Corps had declines as well, though they were not deemed statistically significant, meaning “we have a low confidence that it is a true change and could be due to chance or natural variation in the data year-to-year,” Dr. Liz Clark, director of the Defense Suicide Prevention Office, told reporters.

Across all branches, the report continued to find a few common trends. Young, enlisted men remain most at risk, and firearms, usually personally owned, are still the most common method.

The report also studied suicides among military families, albeit from 2020 due to lags in data from the CDC’s National Death Index.

In 2020, 202 military dependents died by suicide, including 133 spouses and 69 other dependents. That’s the same figure as in 2019, and more than 2018 and 2017, the first years when military families were included in the report.


In a statement accompanying the release of the report, Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III pledged that “we will not stop working to address the root causes of this issue. We also continue efforts to improve the quality of life for service members and their families, address stigma as a barrier to seeking help, and expand our safety efforts for our service members and their families.”

In particular, officials said their efforts over the past year have focused on creating supportive environments.

“Historically, we’ve really taken a one-to-one approach to suicide prevention,” Foster said. “So we focus on an individual’s particular risk factors and reducing those factors, and that’s still a critical part of suicide prevention, to be clear, but what we’re also focused on and what we’re moving towards in this space is focusing on common community risks and protective factors.” 

As part of that focus, DOD is looking to hire 2,000 “prevention personnel” to station around the globe, Foster noted. The hope is to have the first 400 hired within the next few months.

Those personnel will be tasked with “building healthy climates that lead to a reduction in these behaviors,” Foster said, adding that personnel will also try to get “to the left of this—so how do we reach those service members before they get to that point of crisis?”

Some of those efforts can be broad. “How do we make life worth living for the service members?” Clark said. As an example, Foster pointed to recent policies implemented by Austin across the DOD aimed at ensuring economic security for troops.

“We really want to emphasize that quality of life is a critical part of suicide prevention and it’s really important that we consider this in our approach. … These are really critical elements to building an environment where service members and families can thrive,” Foster said.

Leaders are also working on a communications push to both destigmatize getting help for mental health and to highlight the resources available. Clark noted that there are many “misperceptions and misconceptions” about how seeking mental health treatment will affect service members’ career opportunities.

That push will include a review of DOD policies, both to get rid of what officials called “stigmatizing” language and to ensure that getting help for mental health won’t have adverse effects on someone’s career.

“We are in the process of reviewing all DOD policies, regulations, and procedures, but language that would be stigmatized and could be—such  as ‘commit suicide’ would be one, ‘mental retardation’—and taking some stigmatizing language out of the policy and really being able to look at, if you were to have a mental health appointment, if you were to have suicide ideation or suicide-related behavior, what is then that limitation of any type of waiver or a denial of a position or assignment; and having an opportunity to examine each one of those,” Foster said.

Service members and veterans who are in crisis or having thoughts of suicide, and those who know a service member or veteran in crisis, can call the Veterans/Military Crisis Line for confidential support available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. Call 988 and press 1; text 988; or chat online at