The Marine Corps had the highest rate of suicide among all the U.S. military branches in 2022 ― a sobering statistic for a service that has stepped up efforts in recent years to prevent these tragedies.
The military has seen a gradual increase in suicide across the branches since 2011, the Defense Department’s annual report on suicide in the military found. In the Marine Corps’ active component, 34.9 out of 100,000 service members died by suicide in 2022, up from a rate of 23.9 in 2021 and higher than any other service.
The suicide rate per 100,000 service members was 28.9 in the Army, 20.6 in the Navy and 19.7 in the Air Force; no one died by suicide in the Space Force, according to the Pentagon’s data.
In total, 61 active duty Marines and six Marine reservists died by suicide in 2022.
“While statistics and numbers are important … when it’s your person, your loved one, that’s a statistic of one,” said Carla Stumpf Patton, senior director of suicide prevention and postvention programs at Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors.
For Stumpf Patton, the issue of suicide in the military is deeply personal. In 1994, her husband, drill instructor Marine Sgt. Richard Stumpf, died by suicide, several days before their child was born.
“I knew I had to make a commitment to myself to somehow find a way to survive this, learn from this and one day to be able to contribute in some way to helping so that other people didn’t have to go through what we were going through,” Stumpf Patton said.
The suicide rate in the military mostly has been similar to the rate in the overall U.S. population adjusted for age and sex, the DoD report noted. But the top Marine leader said on Oct. 27 he was “not having any of that, because I don’t want to be average.”
“One is too many,” Commandant Gen. Eric Smith said at the Military Reporters & Editors Conference in Washington.
Smith said the Marine Corps is working on initiatives to put professional mental help within units and improve command climates, among other things. Pointing to the positive effect Navy chaplains can have on Marine units, Smith said he has asked the Navy Chaplain Corps to consider providing commissioning routes for enlisted would-be chaplains to alleviate a shortage of the military religious leaders.
“I don’t have the answer yet other than to be the public face and tell Marines, if you have a challenge, if you have a problem, just ask — just let us know,” Smith said. “We’re not going to, quote, kick you right out. That’s not how it works.”
When Smith made those comments, he was still performing the job of commandant. But newly confirmed Assistant Commandant Gen. Christopher Mahoney has taken over those responsibilities as Smith recovers from an Oct. 29 cardiac arrest.
In an August video, Smith appeared alongside Sergeant Major of the Marine Corps Carlos Ruiz to encourage Marines to seek help when they need it.
“We talk about the Marine Corps being a family,” Ruiz said in the video, addressing leaders in the Corps. “It can’t be just a talking point.”
“And so there’s a responsibility that you and I share,” Ruiz continued, indicating Smith, “that every command team shares, all the way down to the fire team level, that we must create a culture where people can make mistakes and yet they can get back up.”
The Marine Corps did not provide comment in response to a Marine Corps Times query by time of publication.
In Stumpf Patton’s view, the Marine Corps has gotten better at grappling with suicide in the past few decades. The service branch has decreased the stigma around seeking help for mental health issues, she said, and greatly increased its suicide-prevention training and staff. It has incorporated feedback from families and outside experts, she said.
The Defense Health Agency has acknowledged that the stigma surrounding mental health support holds some service members from seeking it, with an agency researcher saying in June the stigma can arise in part from the culture within certain units.
“For example, warrior ethos emphasizes discipline, mental toughness, and self-sufficiency, and foremost attention to successful mission execution,” Dr. Nancy Skopp, research and clinical psychologist with the agency’s Psychological Health Center of Excellence, said in a news release.
It can be beneficial for military leaders to share stories of when seeking help didn’t negatively affect someone’s career but instead made the person stronger, Bonnie Carroll, the president and founder of Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, told Congress in 2022.
Of the service members who died by suicide in 2022, 45% had certain behavioral health diagnoses, 42% had intimate relationship problems, 26% had workplace difficulties, 26% had administrative or legal problems and 10% had financial difficulties, according to the DoD report.
Researchers also have found a connection between traumatic brain injuries and deaths by suicide among service members and veterans. A New York Times investigation published Nov. 5 drew a link between traumatic brain injuries in Marine batteries that had pounded the Islamic State with artillery rounds and the “striking” number of suicide deaths in those units.
Stumpf Patton said service members may be at higher risk for suicide after a peer dies by suicide, especially if they don’t receive high-quality support, known as postvention, after the peer’s death.
But she emphasized that suicide is a complex phenomenon with multiple factors, rather than a single cause.
In the military, postvention should include identifying peers who are struggling and getting them the support they need, Stumpf Patton said. Stigma-free, judgment-free messaging from leadership is important, she said.
Stumpf Patton wants Marines to know that it’s OK to seek support after their peers die by suicide, because family members aren’t the only ones who can be affected by those losses. Not only does help exist, she said, but it works — suicide does not have to be inevitable.
“There’s a tremendous power in peer support, to be able to connect perhaps with other Marines,” she said. “You’re not alone.”
Editor’s note: Troops, veterans and family members experiencing suicidal thoughts can call the 24-hour Suicide and Crisis Lifeline at 988 or 1-800-273-8255, text 838255, or visit VeteransCrisisLine.net.
Irene Loewenson is a staff reporter for Marine Corps Times. She joined Military Times as an editorial fellow in August 2022. She is a graduate of Williams College, where she was the editor-in-chief of the student newspaper.