A spate of recent suicides among sailors assigned to the same US aircraft carrier has raised concerns, prompting questions about mental health issues in the military and potential barriers to seeking treatment.
Navy officials have confirmed that at least four sailors assigned to the USS George Washington have committed suicide in the past year, including three in the past month. Retail Services Specifications. 3rd Class Mikail Sharp was found dead April 9 at an off-base location in Portsmouth, Virginia; Natasha Huffman, Interior Communications Electrician 3rd Class, was found dead on April 10 in Hampton, Virginia; and on April 15, Coxswain Seaman Recruit Xavier Hunter Mitchell-Sandor was found unconscious aboard the ship in Newport News, Va., and later died, officials said.
The fourth sailor, who has not been publicly identified, committed suicide in 2021, and the cause of a fifth death that occurred last year is undetermined, officials say.
“Each death is tragic in itself,” Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby said at a press conference this week. “Our thoughts and prayers continue to go out to the families and, frankly, the shipmates because they are also affected – they are part of the seafaring family.”
Mental health experts say the recent spate of suicides is concerning and raises questions about whether there are underlying issues in the military culture that contribute to the problem – and how to address them.
Experts say suicide deaths among the military have been a persistent problem since the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, but have been rising steadily in recent years. A Department of Defense report shows there were 287 suicides in 2017 among active duty members across all branches of the military, 326 in 2018, 349 in 2019, and 386 in 2020. The number of suicides has dropped in 2021 to 328, according to the report. .
The coronavirus has created unique stressors and, in fact, military suicides have increased during the pandemic, experts have said.
Craig Bryan, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral health at Ohio State University, said clusters of suicides are often coincidental. But mental health experts also see them when there’s an underlying factor affecting an entire group, and “some people who are maybe more vulnerable are kind of crossing the thresholds for suicide,” he said. .
The third, less common scenario is where the suicides are directly linked to each other, Bryan said. Lt Cmdr. Rob Myers, a Naval Air Force Atlantic public affairs officer, said in a statement that the investigation is ongoing, but “there are no initial indications to suggest there is a correlation between these tragic events.” .
Sharp, Huffman, Mitchell-Sandor and the two sailors who have not been publicly identified were all assigned to the USS George Washington. The Nimitz-class nuclear-powered aircraft carrier has been moored since 2017 at Newport News Shipbuilding in Newport News, Va., undergoing a major overhaul.
But often it’s not at the height of a crisis – or of combat – that service members begin to experience mental health issues, said David Rudd, a distinguished professor of psychology and director of the Institute for suicide prevention among veterans and college military. University of Memphis.
“In the midst of the crisis and in the midst of significant grievances, people are feeling a real sense of purpose,” he said.
“It’s after, it’s in those times when there’s less activity, less to do, less purpose and less structure, that it creates opportunities for people to reflect and feel and think” difficulties in other areas of their lives, Rudd said. Problems around this time tend to take on a more emotional significance, fueling depression, anxiety, and substance use “which are always part of the suicide problem,” Rudd explained.
Mental health experts agree that one of the limitations of preventing military suicides is that suicides are extremely complex, usually involving a number of factors, and there is rarely an explanation or solution. Additionally, there are military policies and procedures that can make it more difficult – not less – for those requesting assistance.
Rudd said one problem is that there is an inherent conflict between stated military values – courage, duty and selfless service – and human vulnerabilities. “All of these things are wonderful and appropriate in the warrior culture. But the problem is that it doesn’t leave a lot of room for soldiers, and especially young people, to be human when they have emotional problems or they have mental health issues,” he said. .
Rudd said many people dealing with mental health issues say they feel a sense of failure for not living up to that standard.
Besides this internal struggle, Rudd said another issue is that service members typically have to disclose to their superiors that they are seeking care from a mental health professional. “These are things that, not deliberately, but just inadvertently, fuel the shame and stigma that keep people from seeking help at this critical time,” he said.
Rudd said the military needs to look closely at policies in place that could create potential barriers.
As for the USS George Washington, Navy officials said there was a full medical team aboard the ship, including a psychologist and a body man trained as a behavioral health technician.
Sharp, who was found dead April 9, was the first in a recent spate of suicides.
The 23-year-old, who joined the Navy nearly two years ago, had recently married and was planning to buy a house and start a family, his mother, Natalie Jefferson, told NBC News.
Jefferson, who lived with her son in Norfolk, said she had no idea he was struggling, calling it “the life of the party”.
“He never showed his pain,” she told the network.
A day after Sharp’s death, Huffman’s body was found at an off-base location in Hampton, Navy officials said. She had joined the Navy in the summer of 2018.
In a heartbreaking Facebook post, Huffman’s mother, Kathleen Krull, wrote that her daughter “always stood up for the underdog” and was “fiercely protective of the people she loved.”
“In some ways, it still doesn’t feel real to me that my baby girl is gone,” Krull wrote.
Less than a year after Mitchell-Sandor joined the Navy, he was found unconscious on April 15 aboard the ship and was rushed to Riverside Regional Medical Center, where he died, CBS News reported. .
Mitchell-Sandor, 19, had an affinity for sports. He had a black belt in karate and was the quarterback for his high school football team, according to his obituary. It was during his senior year that he enlisted and was sent to a training camp in Great Lakes, Illinois, where he excelled as a leading yeoman and marksman, according to his obituary.
He was stationed on the USS George Washington “where he protected the ship until his untimely death,” it read.
Jefferson, Sharp’s mother, urged other service members who might be struggling to get help “because the last thing a parent wants to do is bury their child,” she said, according to NBC News.