PHOENIX — More current and former service members are dying by suicide than in battle, according to the Department of Defense.
Now, a professor and clinical psychologist at Arizona State is working with other experts to help the government understand what’s happening.
“Even though there are a number of suicide prevention measures in place, we’re not seeing the trends decrease,” said Rebecca Blais, an expert panelist on the DOD’s suicide prevention and review committee.
“And specifically, among women, we’re seeing the rate of suicide go up drastically,” she added.
According to the government, 519 active-duty troops died by suicide in 2021. That’s a slight decrease compared to 2020.
The committee of 10 includes clinical psychologists, epidemiologists, social workers, doctors, retired military and a chaplain.
Additionally, Blais’ research studies the connection between sexual assaults in the military and suicide.
She also said victims of sexual trauma might be more likely to die by suicide than those exposed to combat trauma.
“Folks who are in the military train for combat,” she said.
“That’s not to say it’s not traumatizing — I think it actually is. I think it is related to suicide risk but not the way we see sexual violence and racial violence in the military,” she added.
Blais also told ABC15 she’s traveled to different military installations to meet with troops and ask them about sexual assaults in the military.
“When I brought up the idea of sexual trauma, one of the things they said is ‘that’s just the norm, that happens, that’s part of being a service member’ and as a fellow woman, as a mother and as a clinical psychologist, that can’t be the norm,” she added.
Navy veteran and Valley native Dominque Mustoe told ABC15 she was sexually assaulted during a deployment.
“The next morning he laughed about it with the group I used to work with,” she said.
Mustoe said she reported the assault to higher-ranking officials but the person was never disciplined.
She also told ABC15 the attacker threatened to kill her if she reported him.
“I said ‘I can’t believe you did that’ and he told me if I spoke up it isn’t hard to push you over the edge in the middle of the night,” she said.
Meanwhile, Blais told ABC15 the DOD’s suicide prevention committee is focused on individual interventions and what’s happening in military culture.
“If we have military service members saying that racial discrimination and sexual violence is the norm, that’s got to change,” said Blais.
“Yes, let’s focus on the individual but let’s also military culture to understand what needs to change,” she added.
Blais said the committee’s findings will be given to the DOD in December.
The report is also expected to be published in early 2023.