Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin talks troops and mental health stigma on visit to Alaska

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin expressed his concerns regarding suicide among troops on a visit to the U.S. forces stationed in Alaska. The state has seen an alarming spike in suicide-related deaths.

Since December 30, at least six soldiers have died by probable suicide in Alaska, whereas there is speculation of suicide in several others, USA TODAY reported. This surge coincides with the alarming increase seen in the past several years among troops across the armed services.

326 active-duty troops reported died by suicide in 2018 alone, with the number increasing in 2019 to 350 and a further surge in 2020 with 385 recorded suicides, according to the most recent Pentagon figures. there is a fluctuation in the number as investigations establish and confirm the actual cause of death.

Stress on troops and the social stigma associated with seeking treatment for mental health issues were cited by Austin as contributing factors. Just last week, both Army experts and Defense officials cited the stress caused by military life, demand for troops to confront China, and access to counseling.

“I’m mindful of the stress that they’re often under and I’m deeply concerned about the suicide rates, not only here but across the force,” Austin told reporters Saturday during a visit at Eielson Air Base in Alaska. “As you’ve heard me say before, one loss by suicide is too many and while we’re working hard on this problem, we have a lot more to do. And I believe that has – it has to start with removing the stigma attached to mental health issues.”

The issue of suicide was common amongst all the visits Austin had with the military, civilian and tribal leaders during his visit to Alaska, according to a Defense official who was not authorized to speak publicly about the meetings.

In Alaska, the number of suicides in 2021 among the roughly 11,500 stationed troops there has already equaled that of last year, a total of seven soldiers died by suicide in 2020 in the U.S. Army Alaska.

The state’s civilian population recorded the second-highest suicide rate in the U.S. in 2019, according to the CDC. The Army has spent more than $200 million in recent years in Alaska to combat suicide by improving living conditions there.

“Mental health is health period,” Austin said. “And we have to approach it with the same energy that we apply to other – any other health issue, with compassion and professionalism and resources. And so if you’re hurting, there are resources available.”