June 19, 2012

Are wimpy Millennials behind the rise in military suicides?

My realtalk buddy and I were trying to make heads or tails of the fact that suicides in the military now outnumber combat deaths. He was in Vietnam and said that, while soldiers always love to bitch about their assignments, there was nothing like the wave of suicides that there's been recently. And the people he's talking about faced far tougher stress in Vietnam than today's military has faced in Iraq and Afghanistan. (I'm still waiting for him to say, "The man in the black pajamas, Dude. Worthy fuckin' adversary.")

It looks like the government began collecting data in 1980. Here's the number per year:

A report shows that the military suicide rates paralleled the civilian suicide rates during the 1980s, '90s, and earlier half of the 2000s, then began surging sometime during the mid-2000s and up through 2008. They attributed a good deal of this to the deployment of troops to Iraq and Afghanistan.

However, more recent data show that suicides have continued to rise up through 2012. (They're comparing the Jan-May period for each year, to be able to include 2012, and say that the rate during this time-frame predicts what happens for the entire year.) Combat troops were withdrawn from Iraq in 2010, and the war in Afghanistan is winding down. So mere exposure to combat seems to be unlikely to explain much of the rise, which has only gotten worse even after steady de-escalation of the war effort.

What changed around 2006 and has continued through now? I think it's the generational structure. Most military suicides are males aged 18-24. But a 21 year-old Millennial is not the same as a 21 year-old Boomer or Gen X-er was. It looks like the suicide rate began climbing once Millennials started to make up a larger portion of the young adults in the military, right through today.

Having been sheltered by their helicopter parents all their lives, including being socially isolated from their peers, not to mention growing up during a falling-crime period, the Millennials never faced much of a test of survival and independence. They locked themselves indoors playing video games all day instead of gathering together in a group to play football in the park, or manhunt in the woods.

In the same way that regular stressors build stronger bones and muscles during development, regular rough-and-tumble play, even the occasional encounter with real violence, toughens a person mentally to handle the load as an adult. Violence doesn't even have to face you first-hand -- just seeing it happen to others via the news, word-of-mouth, and so on, reminds you that it could happen to you too. That alone can begin the process of building up mental defenses to such stressors later on.

It would hardly be surprising, then, that when the younger soldiers in the military are drawn from this generation, the rates of depression, anxiety, and suicide would begin soaring. Presumably they're tougher on average than a random group of Millennials, but still wimpier on average than their young military counterparts who were born before 1985.

That fits with the impression my younger brother gives me of what Army life is like in the 2010s. He entered basic training in his late 20s, and said the typical guy there was more interested in screwing off and complaining about minimal demands. Those guys were born in the early '90s, while he was born in 1982. He probably notices the pre-Millennial vs. Millennial differences more than I do, since he's even closer to their age, yet still on the not-too-fucked-up side of the generational divide. Just 5 years younger than him is a wide chasm.

I didn't hear too many stories like that from my other brother, also born in 1982, who went to Iraq once or twice during the mid-late 2000s, and has been out of the Army for several years now (I don't recall exactly when). Maybe the troop composition was only just getting screwed up when he got in, or maybe he just didn't feel like offering stories about them. I'll have to ask next time we're yakking on the phone.

Here we see another case of helicopter parents crippling or at least stunting their kids' healthy growth as "adults," in the name of (over-)protecting them as children.


  1. What's the deal with your brothers? Half-brothers? Just curious as your last paragraph is a little unusual and sad: I have one cousin whose military war zone service isn't clear to me (I've never met him, but hear of him), but could never say the same about my siblings, even step ones living in other states.

  2. Interesting theory, but it may be an overreach. Suicide is also associated with unemployment, which has hit young, working-class Millenials hardest.

  3. Also, it could be linked to a whole host of other pathological behaviors that the working-class is now experiencing, which were absent or not as bad in the 60s-90s period. For instance, a probably having a large bearing on the increase in suicides: lack of stable marriages amongst the working-class.

  4. Teen heroin use has apparently skyrocketed. (Google it).

  5. "What's the deal with your brothers?"

    They're fraternal twins. I moved out here when the one was still overseas, and he came back for awhile, then maybe went back again. Sometimes stationed in Germany, sometimes Iraq. I can't remember exactly when he came back... around 2009 I guess.

    "Suicide is also associated with unemployment, which has hit young, working-class Millenials hardest."

    Suicide is not related to economic variables, which is visible in the graph. You can't see the boom-and-bust cycle. Also, Millennials in the military have secure jobs with benefits, so they'd be protected from unemployment woes anyway.

    "Teen heroin use has apparently skyrocketed."

    The Youth Risk Behavior Survey shows that heroin use among high schoolers peaked around 1999 or 2001. The 2011 rate is not different from the 2009 rate. Even at its peak, a little over 3% had used heroin recently.

  6. The headline apparently meant that the number of teens seeking treatment for heroin use is increasing, and that the number of teen heroin deaths is skyrocketing.


  7. In the graph above, the suicide rate doesn't go below 200 until 1996, and doesn't go back above until 2006 (2004 looks right on the line). Did the 96-2005 cohort really come from that much of a high crime period relative to their predecessors?

  8. i've always heard "back in my day talk" from military guys and guys who knew my dad and his family. but i have noticed some very clear examples told and very clear differentiations made by even guys my age about the millenials.

    i don't think this is a case of rose colored glasses for once.

  9. Matt Strictland6/22/12, 4:30 AM

    I do agree generational differences do have an impact but the length and nature of deployments is the bigger issue.

    Solider in the current battle-front have no real ability to socialize with the locals, are not allowed to drink or do drugs and have no women or porn or any of the soldiers traditional releases.

    In addition they are kept for long periods of time with no goal or idea when they might "win" and or return home except by leaving the service (and their brothers) behind and coming back to a recession. Even in WW2 where they couldn't leave, the goal was "beat the Axis and you can come home." In Afghanistan and to a lesser degree Iraq its "I dunno, maybe someday."

    Lastly, modern war is more random and stressful than older modes (especially pre repeating weapons) Its put wear on the soldiers to never really see the enemy and to fight well homemade mines and the occasional ambush than to retaliate with an air strike rather than an honest open battle. Its either bushwhack or massacre neither of which are conducive to feeling like anything is being done.

    After all one of the traditional "Payments" of the soldier was glory and honor and modern wars, especially this one lacks both.

    Its little wonder that suicide rates are so high.

    I suspect that as war gets more technologically sophisticated this will get worse and if for some terrible reason the US gets into a war with people that can hurt us, say by drones or the like and we can't nuke unlike the current wars vs very poor nations , well like Europe after WW2 you can count on an entire society with PTSD. If we survive that is

  10. "Solider in the current battle-front have no real ability to socialize with the locals, are not allowed to drink or do drugs and have no women or porn or any of the soldiers traditional releases."

    the suicides are happening *after* they get back to America.

  11. Furthermore, there's a growing trend of suicides in teh civilian male population as well. This means that military suicides are probably linked to some larger trend than structural problems with the military.

  12. I have a theory about this but I have no data whatsoever. Perhaps this is related not only to gen y's thin skins but the economic environment as well.

    There have been hardly any decent jobs since maybe 2007. Lots of people join the military to escape the job market or to pay for college. With college tuition as expensive as it is compounded with the terrible job market it's possible that the military is attracting less than suitable candidates. It might be there are more people in the military who should simply not be there and are not capable of handling it.

  13. The Vietnam vets probably had the toughest case. A soldier in WWII experienced an average of 40 days of combat during the entire 4 year war. Admittedly some of that combat was horrific (Anzio in Italy, Iwo Jima in the Pacific). However, the typical one-year tour of duty in Vietnam involved an average of 240 days of combat, most of it up close and personal combat in the jungle. This is the reason why the Vietnam vets came back so screwed up. The reason for the increased combat was the use of helicopters to quickly deliver soldiers into combat at a moments notice (helicopters were only being experimented with at the time of WWII).

    I doubt the Iraqi veterans have it nearly as tough as the Vietnam vets did. The jungle combat in Nam was nasty.

  14. How about having to do three and four tours in a combat zone? They can't bitch about it because they are volunteers, but three and four tours with six month turnarounds look endless from the grunts perspective. These guys have the attitude that they already are dead, it helps get them through their tour, it's only a small step further to off yourself.

    As far as VN is concerned and only having read about it, I think units like the First of the Ninth and other Air Cavs saw inhuman amounts of action every day but it ended in a year, unless they loved it. The saying was 'stay away from the guys on their third tour.'I think other units did a lot of nothing until they ran into a few days of frenzy in their year tour.
    Having said all that I think the constant tension of the possibility of being de-balled and de-legged by a shy woman in a burka, who blows herself up, adds considerably to the tension the guys experience now.

  15. The author of this article posits a whole load of generalized theories not based in any sort-of real evidence. I'm part of the "millennial" generation who did not have helicopter parents, whose life was under threat growing up, who got into street fights to protect myself and others. Who had to raise himself and teach himself the skills necessary to survive in the world. And my family was upper middle class! My parents were just insane.

    It's not that people are "wimpy". It's that life in America is harder now than any living generation can remember. A new order is here, and nobody but the younger generation can understand this. So throw out your talk of "wimpy millennials" and accept the harsh reality we all live under now. Less jobs. Less money. Less opportunities. Technology. Outsourcing and insourcing.

    So many lives have been made redundant, how can you possibly say people are wimpy when they decide to take their lives, particularly when they've been ordered to commit atrocities for the US government who abandons them when they come home to a world that neither wants them or needs them?

  16. Upper-middle class, middle school-age street fighters... LOL, you Millennials never learned how to lie. Your helicopter parents either bought your lies, or were disengaged and didn't care one way or the other. And cut off from peers, you never had to refine your fibbing skills.

    Most of the military suicides are among people who've never seen combat or even been deployed outside the country, you clueless moron.

    They are not shell-shocked veterans coming back to the world and seeing all those maggots at the airport, protesting me, spitting. Calling me baby killer and all kinds of vile crap.

    They are typical sheltered Millennials who, upon being asked to get up at 5am and do push-ups, and get teased by their bunkmates, decide the only way out is to Do It.

  17. Lack of Millennial exposure to violence and other stressors might go some ways to explaining why R rated graphically violent movies have practically disappeared since the mid 2000's.

    I know we've discussed the 'torture porn' fad but that actually was fairly short lived with the biggest hits coming out in 2004-2008 so the audience was late Gen X/early Millennial. Now that marketing is aimed squarely at later period Millenials there are very few bloody horror/action movies being given large releases.

    Most Hollywood product is geared toward the 14-29 demographic (these days also Gen X-ers and Boomers slumming it for The Children as well) so evidently Millenials have so little backbone about dealing with blood & gore that nasty and relatively realistic deaths have become increasingly less common these days.


    In fact, beginning in about 1992 movies tended to feature very little blood & gore at all, and the few that did made it cartoonishly excessive/post modern (300, Tarantino's stuff, Hannibal etc.) which takes away from any possible emotional resonance. The audience post 1992 (which obviously includes Gen X & boomers) stopped being empathetic which gave us action/horror movies featuring characters who were at best cyphers being killed in really ridiculous ways which furthered took the audience out of their plight. If the film was R rated and bothered to kill any people at all.

    A good example of rising audience cowardice is Speed, one of the last hit action movies to have any real impact on the culture. By the film's 1994 release the filmmakers barely included any deaths at all, so why should we want to see the villain get his deservedly brutal comeuppance? Another thing they botched was the hero's motivation; yeah Keanu's partner gets killed in the beginning but it's a pretty mundane non graphic death which depersonalizes the partner and takes away from our ability to root for Keanu against the villain. Sandra Bullock is also the bus driver in case anyone forgot.

    The faggyness has even affected the big 80's stars.

    Arnold's movies starting with 1995's near bloodless and self aware True Lies aren't one quarter of the adrenaline charge that his 80's stuff is. Agnostic has picked on '91's Terminator 2 but at least that had a stone cold slasher villain.

    Stallone had the indignity of releasing the last Expendable film as a PG-13. Um, what the hell is the point of it then anyway? The god awful mid 90's mess he was in called Judge Dredd had Sandra Bullock as Stallone's partner BTW.

    What does it say about how deranged we've become since the mid 1990's that of all people, Sandra Bullock started showing up in action movies?

    In the 1980's, even some 'fantasy' movies like Excalibur, Conan, Legend, The Keep, hell even Willow had some blood and grit to them.

  18. You're thinking of Demolition Man for the one with Stallone and Bullock. Denis Leary had a pretty good cameo in that one as the ranting preacher of the underground.

    The Sandra Bullock thing got so bad that they even made her the star of a thriller -- The Net. Awful movie.

    Why did she keep landing all those roles? Someone big in the casting world must have had a thing for MtF applicants.

  19. Sorry about confusing the Stallone movies. The culture has been getting so dull (stuff alternates from being too slow and quiet to being too loud and chaotic) that it becomes difficult to distinguish one song or one movie from another.

    Demolition Man is like a much campier and snarkier take on the sort of dystopian movies that were popular and reasonably believable and intelligent in the late 70's/80's. Dennis Rodman, the most flamboyant athlete to emerge from the late 80's/90's was the villain!

    I recently saw an action movie called Judgement Night (1993) in which villain Dennis Leary faces off against a group of Gen X-ers including near Boomer Emilio Estevez and possible homo Cuba Gooding Jr. It's not bad in spite of the obligatory 'hip' rap music. It does have a gritty hellhole urban setting. Whatever happened to those?

    What's the deal with the queeny blacks, wimpy young white guys, and butch women in our culture since the mid 90's? Once you start noticing this stuff it becomes impossible to ignore.

    Jamie Foxx and Will Smith are also awfully non threatening. Ironically Smith was cast as the title role in Micheal Mann's Ali (2001). The movie was lugubrious and also sugarcoated many of Ali's flaws. That movies production is studded with black jock worshipping Boomers and Jews who evidently didn't realize that Smith isn't exactly cut out to be a tough guy hell raiser. The public did and the movie didn't do much business.

  20. Outside of a handful of modern movies which usually aren't hits anyway, it really is tough to find movies with brutal but believable violence playing at the theater these days at all, let alone one's popular enough to stay in theaters for weeks. To wit:

    Terminator 3 (2003) is less gory than Terminator (1984).

    Alien 3 (1992) is less graphic than Alien (1979) or Aliens (1986)

    Harry Potter & Lord of the Rings (2000's) are less graphic than Conan (1982) and Excalibur (1981).

    Dawn of the Dead (2004) has less drawn out lovingly captured gut munching than the original (1979) or Day of the Dead (1985)

    The new Star Wars movies don't show realistically gruesome injuries like 1977/1980 movies did.

    How 'bout particular directors?
    Micheal Mann's movies are more boring too: Collateral (2003) and Public Enemies (2009) have less bright red bloody violence than Thief (1981) and Manhunter (1986).

    David Cronenberg, the king of gross but fascinating movies in the late 70's-80's has been making fewer, less lurid movies since the early 90's. His 1986 movie The Fly is possibly the most critically respected splatter movie ever (along with the '79 Dawn of the Dead). The Fly also was a big hit with the mid 80's public.

    Spielberg's recent dainty 'efforts' like the 4th Indiana Jones and A.I. lack the sweat and blood that his early movies did. I understand he's quite hesitant about violence and making people uncomfortable these days. Unless it involves fighting Nazis of course.

    Wes Craven's celebrated update of the slasher, Scream (1996) does have some grue but the stalking and slashing in that movie has nothing on a Nightmare on Elm Street (1984). Who could forget Johnny Depp being turned into a geyser of blood? Scream also made the mistake of making Ghostface a non character (the Scream movies have a series of nutcases donning the killer's outfit). Whereas Freddy was one colorful (literally and figureatively) sicko who the audience knew and wanted to see defeated.

    Also when modern movies do have gory violence it tends to be so outlandish that it diminishes the impact.

    Another thing I've noticed is that modern horror/action movies tend to be heavily desatured in both photography as well as special effects which also diminishes potential impact.

    The admittedly popular Evil Dead (2013) and Friday the 13th (2009) remake were quite gory but the film stock, color grading, and blood were far more desaturated compared to the 80's originals. The editing is also far more spastic in the remakes which makes it harder to tell what the hell is going on. The audience is more confused than frightened or grossed out.

    I think also that this stuff ties into post 1992 viewers being more cerebral so we get violence that is literally less visceral.

  21. I think the main problem with horror movies of the last 20 or so years is that as the crime rate has steadily plummeted, the actors have had more difficulty summoning a feeling of fear, dread, terror, and the like. It's like expecting a retard to portray a brainiac, a depressive to portray a sanguine, or a woman to portray a man.

    People whose daily lives have been getting less and less violent for years on end can only deliver the most forced, contrived, and self-conscious performance as someone who's being stalked by a killer. They either don't react at all, and their frozen state takes us out of believing it (no fight or flight response), or they shriek and open their eyes so wide that it looks like a kabuki mask, reminding us that it's only play-acting.

    You see the same thing with Midcentury horror movies. OMG, it's the attack of the... giant ants? I mean, GIANT ANTS! Make a run for it, Beaver! Aside from the hokey acting, they were full of campy cross-overs like Abbott and Costello Meet _____ (Frankenstein, the Invisible man, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, etc.), which had nearly a dozen sequels.

    Horror movie performances were more naturalistic back in the '20s and early '30s, when the crime rate was still rising. That's when the classic monster movies were made.

    As self-conscious as acting tends to be in a cocooning period, it stands out the worst in horror movies. The distance between their everyday physiological state, and the state they're supposed to get into for the role, couldn't be greater.


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