U.S. Navy Turns to "Big Data" to Combat Suicide

Sailors grieve at a memorial service for Machinist's Mate 3rd Class Robert "Bobby" John Bartulewicz III, who died by suicide in July 2019. The USS Bush has lost five crewmembers by suicide in two years. (USN file image))

By The Maritime Executive 02-11-2020 02:07:00

To get ahead with its suicide prevention efforts, the U.S. Navy has launched an initiative to develop a "Culture of Excellence" - a combination of existing and new programs to develop "toughness, trust and connectedness" in all members of the service. 

"All too often when I open my email, I have a report of another suicide," said Vice Adm. John B. Nowell, the chief of naval personnel. "What we have been doing is not bending the curve."

The U.S. Navy's suicide rate has doubled since 2006, and it currently stands at about 20 incidents per 100,000 servicemembers per year, above the overall civilian rate of 14 per 100,000. (The Navy notes that the rate for the portion of the civilian population that matches the service's young, majority-male demographic is much higher, at 27 per 100,000.)

At a recent forum, Vice Adm. Nowell highlighted the rollout of the “Commander’s Risk Mitigation Dashboard," a software tool containing information from over 22 separate Navy and Department of Defense databases, all tagged to the unit level. The U.S. Army has used a comparable tool of the same name since 2012. This effort, Nowell said, is a first step for getting in front of problems like suicide – where often there are no apparent warning signs. 

This brand of data-driven leadership might be perceived as “big brother is watching,” Nowell acknowledged, but he described it as a necessary measure. “It’s a canary in the coal mine,” he said. “If we see trends we can raise red flags both up and down the chain to get ahead of the issues and not be behind them picking up the pieces – we can’t fix what we don’t know or understand."

Another component of changing the culture, Nowell said, is the service’s efforts to promote "warrior toughness" or resiliency at the deckplate level. The idea is now part of the curriculum at Recruit Training Command and it is coming soon to the U.S. Naval Academy.

“I’m an old ship driver,” Nowell said. “[Back in those days] the initial reaction when something happened was to simply tell everyone to ‘suck it up’ and drive on. We have to get past that – we have got to get to the point across the whole Navy that if you have to take a knee and recalibrate . . . it's the right thing to do.”

Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy Russell D. Smith pointed to the role of the Chief's Mess in getting this message out. If deckplate-level leaders out in the fleet are willing to be open about their own experiences, “it sets an amazing example that tells your average sailor that it’s OK not to be OK, [but] it’s not OK not to ask for help," he said. 

After three suicides aboard the carrier USS George H.W. Bush last year, members of her crew told the New York Times that those who self-reported emotional difficulties often saw their careers derailed, despite leadership's emphasis on a no-penalty reporting culture. Prevention experts have pointed to persistent understaffing, long hours and high pressure as likely structural factors behind the rising suicide rate; the Navy has made changes to improve retention and recruitment in order to boost "fit and fill" for onboard billets.