Suicide Prevention Awareness Month should serve as a reminder for all of us to look out for the most vulnerable members of our communities, many of whom become suicidal following life experiences that most of us can hardly fathom. Military veterans are one of the groups most at risk for suicide, facing a much higher rate than the average American adult does, even as suicide rates for the general public have risen to their highest levels in modern and recent history. As of a 2015 report from the Pew Research Center, Latinos made up approximately 12 percent of the U.S. military, a rapidly growing contingent, so military suicide prevention will likely become a growing concern for the Latinx community in the years to come.
According to 2016 data from the Department of Veterans Affairs, male vets have suicidality rate 1.4 higher than their non-vet male peers, while female vets are nearly twice as likely as their non-vet peers to commit suicide. Younger male vets have the highest rate of suicide overall, while the deaths of vets aged 55 and older account for most of the veteran suicide deaths in total. Importantly, over two-thirds of suicide deaths were committed with a firearm, which is significant in that guns make it more likely for a suicide attempt to be successful.
A few weeks prior to this year’s Suicide Prevention Awareness Month, House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs Chairman Mark Takano called upon the nation to consider veteran suicides an urgent national crisis, demanding a “nation-wide stand-down” in order to implement effective strategies that will immediately save veteran lives. He cited the fact that Congressional action has been insufficient in addressing this national crisis. “That’s why I’m calling for VA to hold a nation-wide suicide stand-down within the next 15 days so every leadership executive, administrator, nurse, doctor, and employee across VA understands how to identify veterans in crisis and get them the help they need,” he said in a statement late last month. He pointed out that there is no national director or leader in this initiative, a predicament that certainly has handicapped any campaigns to reducing suicide deaths among veterans.
Risk Factors for Veteran Suicide
The risk factors for veteran suicide are not unlike those that would put anyone at risk to take their own life, including experiencing social isolation, living in poverty, suffering from chronic pain or mental health conditions like depression, anxiety, and PTSD, and being a victim of sexual assualt. These risk factors are, of course, more prevalent within a group that has experienced acute and sustained trauma, especially while facing the challenge of reintegrating into society; veterans’ conspicuous experiences reentering society have a significant effect on their sense of wellbeing. Time Magazine cited a study last week that documented how the public perception of military vets can lead them to experience feelings of isolation and abandonment, a major risk factor in the suicide of former soldiers. The publication pointed out that military suicide is not a modern phenomenon; it’s been a fixture of military history around the world.
Aside from passing effective gun legislation aimed at limiting access to guns for individuals at risk for self-harm, there’s at this point no clear path forward to curbing veteran suicide deaths; the contributing factors are too complex. “We’re not very far ahead in understanding who’s out there, who’s really likely to take their lives in the next hours, days, months,” a VA psychologist told NPR earlier this year. At the very least, it’s critical to get veterans into VA hospitals and treatment centers. While ensuring access and use of VA services cannot prevent all suicides, Takano cited figures suggesting that a majority of veteran suicides are committed by vets who are not using VA services.
Preventing military suicides also requires that we continue to channel ample resources toward veterans. The Military Times reported that despite doubling the resources spent on veteran support programs over the past 15 years, the suicide rate has held steady, resulting in approximately 20 veteran deaths per day; however, considering the non-veteran suicide rate has been increasing in this period, the understanding is that the VA’s resources are in fact making a positive impact.
Familiarizing Yourself with Veteran Suicide Risk
As a neighbor, peer, or family member, there are ways that you can help to prevent veteran suicides by educating yourself on the warning signs that indicate a service member is at risk. Be aware of if a veteran is expressing hopelessness, mood swings, rage, and withdrawal. Also be mindful of whether a former service member is engaging in self-destructive or risky behavior or is abusing substances. Veterans themselves should be attuned to risky behavior as well as the most urgent signs of suicidal ideation — things like thinking about or planning self-harm or suicide. If you are someone who works closely or cares for a veteran, check out the S.A.V.E. program, developed by the VA, for more in-depth education on suicide prevention.
Call the Veterans Crisis Line at 1-800-273-8255 and Press 1 if you or someone you know is a veteran who is exhibiting any of these warning signs. You can also chat online with a specialist at veteranscrisisline.net/chat, or via text 838255.