On Friday, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) released a shocking new study that found – among other startling facts – that the suicide rates among US veterans is 22% higher than non-veteran US adults.
In its analysis of veteran suicide data, the VA uncovered that the suicide rate among adult veterans, middle-aged and older, is staggeringly high with 65% of all veterans who died by suicide being 50 years old or older. Additionally, the VA reports that after adjusting for differences in age, the risk for suicide was close to 20% higher among male veterans compared to their non-veteran counterparts, and 2.5 times higher among female veterans compared to their non-veteran counterparts. But one of the most fascinating pieces of the report comes in the form of geography.
The VA Report States
“[T]here is variability across the nation in the rates and numbers of deaths by suicide among Veterans. Overall, the Veteran rates mirror those of the general population in the geographic region, with the highest rates in Western states. While we see higher rates of suicide in some states with smaller populations, most Veteran suicides are still in the heaviest populated areas.”
One of the biggest obstacles when it comes to the epidemic of suicide – especially in terms of male suicide – is that the stigma surrounding it often times compels individuals to stay quiet and avoid discussing their issues or seeking help, and instead choosing to stay isolated and alone. The new VA study proves that this stigma is especially prevalent within the veteran community.
“We know that of the 20 suicides a day that we reported last year, 14 are not under VA care,” said VA Secretary Dr. David J. Shulkin in the press release from the VA.
“I am committed to reducing Veteran suicides through support and education. This is a national public health issue that requires a concerted, national approach.”
While suicide in general is a nuanced and serious topic, it would seem that the risk factors for US veterans and current combat troops and military personnel is skewed quite a bit higher – And with good reason.
In a 2014 report from MentalHealth.va.gov entitled Suicide Among Veterans and Other Americans 2001-2014, it was stated that:
“Mental health disorders, including major depression and other mood disorders, have been associated with increased risk for suicide. Since 2001, the proportion of VHA (Veterans Health Administration) users with mental health conditions or substance use disorders (SUD) has increased from 27% in 2001 to 41% in 2014.”
The aftereffects being exposed to quite horrible and life-threatening experiences can have catastrophic impacts, namely in the form of PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) or a TBI (Traumatic Brain Injury). According to PTSD.va.gov, PTSD “is a mental health problem that some people develop after experiencing or witnessing a life-threatening event.” As explained by the website, it often manifests in four distinct ways:
- Reliving the event (also called re-experiencing symptoms). You may have bad memories or nightmares. You even may feel like you’re going through the event again. This is called a flashback.
- Avoiding situations that remind you of the event. You may try to avoid situations or people that trigger memories of the traumatic event. You may even avoid talking or thinking about the event.
- Having more negative beliefs and feelings. The way you think about yourself and others may change because of the trauma. You may feel guilt or shame. Or, you may not be interested in activities you used to enjoy. You may feel that the world is dangerous and you can’t trust anyone. You might be numb, or find it hard to feel happy.
- Feeling keyed up (also called hyperarousal). You may be jittery, or always alert and on the lookout for danger. Or, you may have trouble concentrating or sleeping. You might suddenly get angry or irritable, startle easily, or act in unhealthy ways (like smoking, using drugs and alcohol, or driving recklessly.
A TBI on the other hand is defined by PolyTrauma.va.gov as “happen[ing] from a blow or jolt to the head or an object penetrating the brain.” The effects can be just as serious – according to the site, a TBI can lead to symptoms and issues that “include physical changes, changes in the person’s behavior, or problems with their thinking skills. After an injury, a number of symptoms might be noted including headaches, dizziness/problems walking, fatigue, irritability, memory problems and problems paying attention.”
So how does this relate to the increased risk of suicide?
Dramatic, life-changing experiences – such as those felt during combat and while at war – can leave serious and lasting impressions and consequences on the human brain and the well-being of the individual who was exposed to the trauma. As has been demonstrated by the studies and research, these lasting effects can lead directly to larger mental health issues and increase the risk of suicide.
But there’s good news in all of this.
There are organizations that are actively seeking to provide help and services to long-time and newly returning veterans to ensure that they not only receive the care they need, but also find a community they can connect and speak with about their individual and unique experiences and issues. One of the prime examples are our friends at Desert Forge. The New Mexico-based non-profit was formed by veterans for veterans, and operates with the goal of restoring emotional, mental, and physical health to returning veterans through meaningful job training, employment, and the arts.
We at Legendary Man are proud to partner with and support Desert Forge and all of their efforts to provide combat veterans with the help they need. If you or someone you love is suffering from mental health issues, contact Desert Forge at desertforge.org or call the Veterans Crisis Line for confidential support 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. Call 800-273-8255 and press 1, chat online at VeteransCrisisLine.net/Chat, or text to 838255.
Visit our page, Save Lives, for more resources and support to prevent male suicide.