The tragic news that three sailors took their own lives on the USS George H.W. Bush in September has caused me to reflect on CNA’s role in helping the Department of the Navy prevent suicides. Since 2010, we have analyzed Navy and Marine Corps administrative databases, performed a big data pilot on an assortment of destructive behaviors related to suicide, and completed a literature review of prevention best practices. These analyses have been valuable in themselves, but also have informed our development of suicide-prevention training tools.

Many studies of suicide risk factors have been impaired by a tendency to look at commonalities among suicide victims, without comparing them to the general population. Identifying common traits among victims fails to take into account the fact that those traits may be equally prevalent in the unstudied population that did not commit suicide. The more difficult — and more valid — analytical approach is to determine the differences between victims and the general Navy/Marine Corps population.

My colleagues Diana Lien and Laura Kelly took the more valid approach, analyzing Navy and Marine Corps databases from 2001 to 2012, piecing together information from several personnel and deployment-related sources. They found that certain groups of sailors and marines have a risk of suicide several times greater than the population at large, such as those in certain communities and at particular stages in their careers. This work pinpointed the critical need to focus special attention on high-risk groups. The analysis indirectly led to changes in policy.

More recently, CNA’s Peggy Golfin built on Lien’s foundation, assembling some 22 Navy datasets of medical, training, and destructive-behavior records and applying special big data methods to them. Analyzing portions of the data, Golfin discovered the importance of previous destructive behaviors as a common factor associated with further destructive behaviors, including suicide. She made recommendations for using that insight to reduce destructive behaviors. Now that the dataset has been assembled and demonstrated, the Navy has a new tool for pursuing many more suicide-related analyses to inform policy and programming, commanders and counselors.

Our analytical work has also informed the development of two board games designed to help command leadership identify warnings and indicators of destructive behaviors and to respond appropriately, while still achieving ship readiness and combat effectiveness.

No single tool or piece of analysis will magically solve the serious problem of suicide that is vexing the military community. Much hard work lies ahead, both in further analysis and in the implementation of insights, best practices and lessons learned. But these steps point toward a better future for the health of the men and women of the Navy and Marine Corps.