Alaska’s Army suicide crisis sparks bipartisan call to action
- Representative Jackie Speier and the senses. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan wrote to Army Sec. Christine Wormuth.
- Suicide in Alaska for the military was almost exclusively an Army issue in 2021.
- Fort Wainwright, in Alaska’s freezing interior, is the epicenter of the Army’s suicide crisis.
WASHINGTON — A bipartisan group of lawmakers has called on the military to address its alarming suicide problem in Alaska, demanding plans to improve living conditions and ensure soldiers have timely access to mental health counselors, a key finding from WASHINGTON. a USA TODAY survey of suicide deaths there.
Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., and Republican Alaska Senators Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan wrote to the Secretary of the Army. Christine Wormuth on the Army suicide crisis that is responsible for the confirmed or suspected deaths of 17 soldiers in Alaska in 2021. The total, first reported by USA TODAY in January, is higher than the previous two years combined .
“The epidemic of military suicides across America calls for immediate action, especially in Alaska where twice as many service members died in 2021 compared to 2020,” Speier said in a statement. “I’ve already spoken with the spouses and parents of service members who died by suicide there, as well as other service members and behavioral health care providers overwhelmed by demand in the area.”
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Speier and Sullivan plan to travel to Alaska to talk with Army leaders about efforts to save soldiers from suicide.
“It is a tragedy that the scourge of suicide disproportionately injures Alaska military personnel and their families,” Sullivan said. “Alaska is home to thousands of service members and more veterans per capita than any other state. But alongside this proud distinction, our state also has horribly high rates of military suicide.”
Alaska has the second-highest suicide rate in the nation, behind Wyoming, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. For all active duty military personnel, the suicide rate rose from 20.3 per 100,000 troops in 2015 to 28.7 per 100,000 troops in 2020, according to the Pentagon. The military suicide rate is similar to that of society. However, troops are subject to much greater scrutiny than civilians and the Pentagon expects a lower rate, Defense officials said.
Suicide in Alaska for the military was almost exclusively an Army issue in 2021. While there were 17 confirmed or suspected suicides among soldiers, only one of the 10,000 Airmen stationed there died by suicide there -low, according to the Air Force.
Wormuth was in Alaska on Wednesday, where she met with soldiers and their families and behavioral health specialists, her spokesman, Lt. Col. Randee Farrell, said. Wormuth intends to respond directly to members of Congress who have written to him.
“She is very concerned about suicide deaths and is working with the (Pentagon) to prioritize the support needed to address the issue in Alaska and throughout the military,” Farrell said.
There are approximately 11,500 troops stationed there, most at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson in Anchorage and Fort Wainwright in Fairbanks.
Fort Wainwright, in Alaska’s freezing interior, is the epicenter of the Army’s suicide crisis. USA TODAY spent several days there in February and had access to soldiers of all ranks who spoke openly about the delays in getting advice. They also spoke of the challenges of living in arctic conditions of extreme cold and lack of daylight, physical isolation, and financial and relationship issues.
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USA TODAY released its report on April 4. The lawmakers’ letter was sent to Wormuth on April 8.
“Our inquiries and conversations highlighted several things: military personnel stationed in Alaska are under inordinate stress from many angles, including shortages of behavioral health specialists, financial issues, limitations in infrastructure and transportation, and adapting to living in a remote location with extremely cold weather,” the Wormuth lawmakers wrote. “The problem is particularly acute at Fort Wainwright, a duty station for which many are not properly selected or prepared.”
A soldier told the newspaper he had been told he would have to wait a month to see a counselor after nearly taking his own life the night before. A defense official involved in overseeing health programs said the soldier likely should have been seen immediately or admitted to the emergency room. The military, in a statement, acknowledged that some soldiers in Alaska experienced delays in receiving care.
“Behavioral health capacity in Fort Wainwright and Fort Richardson is insufficient because there are insufficient providers,” according to the lawmakers’ letter. “As it stands, there are 11 unfilled civilian mental health provider positions at Fort Wainwright. This has placed unbearable pressure on the uniformed and civilian providers filling these accommodations, increasing the likelihood that ‘they’re quitting and further exacerbating the problem.”
They asked Wormuth for a plan with a timeline to send more behavioral health counselors to Alaska and expand video counseling.
“We must do everything in our power to reverse this trend and be there for our military – to provide them with the help they need so that suicide is never the solution,” Murkowski said in a statement. “That includes working to ensure there are enough mental health care providers to serve those who defend our nation.”
The letter also instructed Wormuth not to send soldiers with current or recent mental health issues to Alaska, or those from hot regions for their first assignment in the state. Lawmakers also called for a plan to create incentives to serve at Fort Wainwright, including reducing visits to two years from three.
If you are a military or veteran in crisis or are having suicidal thoughts (or know someone who is), call the Military Crisis Line/Veterans Crisis Line for confidential 24-hour support. 24, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. . Call 1-800-273-8255 and press 1 or text 838255 or chat online at VeteransCrisisLine.net/Chat.