Analytical Report: The Rising Number of Veteran Suicides

The Rising Number of Veteran Suicides

Abstract

The selfless service our nation’s veterans have provided to our country has, for some, become the hardest thing to deal with individually. Suicide rates among veterans and active duty service members are staggering. Having a practical and well-rounded understanding of the problems associated with veteran suicide is key to making a difference and providing assistance to the veteran community.

To have a chance at protecting the lives of those who have served, we as a nation must look closely at this epidemic and find solutions to the problems that seem to continue to occur despite outreach programs by active duty and national guard units, and civilian volunteer groups.

There are systems in place that are set up to assist veterans to get the help they need, however, many times (as we see in the images) these services are not helping as effectively as they were intended. The service member is dealing with many avenues of mental health issues when leaving the military. There is the transitions from active duty to civilian life, war to garrison, and trauma and stress developed from experiences that cause veterans to commit suicide. Within active duty, there are billboards and pamphlets throughout unit headquarters and on sides of streets giving service members the contact information to the suicide hotline number. This, as well as the internal discussions of suicide prevention within units by officers and noncommissioned officers, has not stopped the ever frightening rates of active duty and veteran personnel.

Veteran suicide is a subject that is not discussed on the grand scale within the United States, and that needs to change. There are too many veterans who feel helpless and unworthy of help— these are the veterans that need support and guidance the most.

When working with a veteran, there are specific recommendations that should be considered:

  • Listening to the veteran: this is extremely effective in the process of prevention
  • Accountability and Responsibility: implementing these qualities into the prevention process will shadow previous characteristics veterans are used to.

Introduction

To being, the difference between a service member and veteran must be defined for an accurate and authentic approach to this study. A veteran is one who has left the service and is now a civilian (previously it was reserved for individuals who had deployed to a combat zone). A service member is one who is still in the military armed forces.

The rise of veteran suicide has always been a topic mildly discussed by professionals and politicians. Vietnam veterans are among the highest known cases of suicide with post 9/11 veterans being a steady second. There are several reasons why veterans seek this alternative over professional help, with vulnerability and humiliation being widely attributed to the cause. Veterans have long been known to be the most elite in human form, the warriors of the field and the mind; however, even the most beastly of men and women need assistance from time to time.

The programs that are offered by the Veterans Affairs and other non-profit groups are incredible programs; however, the rapidness of services is what has become their downfall. Too often veterans seek help and are then put on hold, or declined services because they don’t fit the status of a “suicidal veteran.” It is here that the veteran feels the most hopeless and soon turns to suicide as the only other alternative to living in the misery they are encompassed.

Through the power of a community and person to person outreach, veterans have a chance at living a more happy and well-defined life. Even though the veteran suicide rates are reported to be sinking, there is still a cry for help within the service member community.

Within this analytical report, information regarding reasons why and the path veterans take will be examined and reported on. Furthermore, this report will look at the transition problems veterans have when undergoing the changes from active duty to civilian life. The lack of participation and action within the veteran community towards their own falling brothers and sisters will become the background of this report as well.

Greatest Common Factors

According to Jennifer L. Villatte, the author of “Suicide Attempt Characteristics Among Veterans and Active-Duty Service Members Receiving Mental Health Services: A Pooled Data Analysis,” veterans who had been deployed to combat, or a war zone, had significantly lower odds of having attempted suicide relative to veterans with no combat deployments. She goes onto point out that service members deployed to combat had slightly higher odds of suicide attempt relative to service members who had not been deployed.

Service members who are transitioning from a combat zone to garrison, or stateside, or more prone to feel depression and posttraumatic stresses due to the relativity of their surroundings. Service members move from garrison to combat to garrison again with the same men and women. Their relations with these people run deep. Moreover, are filled with vulnerable characteristics that are hidden from the outside world. It is here that service members are more likely to feel out of place and attempt suicide. The use of accountability within units and platoons allows for fellow members to keep an eye on their battle buddies and subsequently lower or diminish the pressures of depression that lead to suicide. 

Figure 1: Suicide Rates by Service (2001-2010): Marines are reported to of had a spike in suicide in the middle of 2009 while the army has seen a steady decline since the same period.

Veterans, on the other hand, are faced with a much broader, less accountable transition. Veterans are leaving a family. They are leaving a home that they have trusted with their lives and their families lives for years. The emotional attachments to the unit or platoon the veteran came from can have a powerful influence on the mental health of the veteran. Along with the struggles to cope with not having familiarities around, the veteran is then faced with economic and self-confidence struggles. Economically, the transitioning veteran is faced with similar fears and stress an ex-prisoner feels when leaving prison.

There is a rush to find adequate employment to survive off of, a lack of qualification for any significant employment opportunity, and the fear of failure takes over the mind of a struggling veteran. Furthermore, according to Villatte, veterans are also prone to suicide through the power of medication dispersed by the Veterans Affairs for various reasons. Any issues documented to the Veterans Affairs is then taken to the farthest extremes of the definition of “care.” This care is more times than not granted with medications that are detrimental to the health and well-being of the veteran.

Drug usage has become a massive factor in the sustainability and mental health of the veteran community. Without suitable and accurate treatment, veterans fall to the powers of temptation found in suicide.

Within the separation of the factors comes a commonality: military members, both active and veteran status deal with a transition that is unmatched in the civilian world. It is through these transitions that members are most tempted to act on suicidal thoughts.

Post 9-11 Veterans

As of September 2018, the VA reported that the suicide rate among all veterans decreased slightly, but the rate among young veterans increased dramatically. According to the report, the suicide rate of veterans aged 18 to 34 steadily increased from 2006 to 2016, with a jump of more than 10 percent from 2015 to 2016. That translates into 45 deaths per 100,000 veterans, the highest of any age group.

Defining what is a Post 9-11 Veteran is critical to understanding the epidemic. A Post 9-11 veteran is one who has served in the military after the terrorist attacks on September 11th, 2001. The age of this veteran is between 18 and primarily 35 according to the VA’s “Profile of Post 9/11 Veterans.” These are the veterans that grew up in several different periods. The rise of technology enhanced the lives of younger veterans and the transitions from peace to war became the foreground of the older post 9/11 veteran.

The growing changes in societal mannerisms and acceptable behavior creates an alpha environment within platoons and units alike. Within these bounds of alpha dominant men and women come distance and issues with expression. Veterans of this generation have a harder time confronting mental health issues than older generations. Surprisingly enough, according to the VA’s “Profile of Post 9/11 Veterans,” post 9/11 veterans are equally represented at the VA’s institutions. As for users of VA programs, about 44 percent of Post-9/11 Veterans. This signifies that the participation within the VA by these veterans is equal to that of previous generations, however, what is also pointed out is the lack of mental health attendance by these veterans.

In the same study, these veterans are more likely to not accept medical assistance for mental health treatment than any other generation. The power of not trying to look vulnerable or weak is reported to of been a valid reason for the lack of attendance.

Figure 2: A graphic depiction of Post 9/11 Veteran Suicide statistics compared to older veteran  suicide statistics.

Vulnerability and the fear of exposing it is more common among male veterans. According to News 21, an online news corporation dedicated to veteran issues and solutions points out that male post 9/11 veterans account for 82% of all the post 9/11 veteran population. In this regard, it is surprising to analyze the differences in the male to the female suicide rate.

According to POGO, The Project On Government Oversight (POGO) is a nonpartisan independent watchdog of government agencies reported that the female rate of suicide among post 9/11 veterans is tremendously higher than that of male veterans of the same generation when compared to their civilian counterparts. The rise of sexual assault cases circling the military as a whole has caused this increased number. Sexual assault is recognized as a factor for both sexes; however, there is a stronger and more pivotal position towards the female reported assaults. Falling this discovery, President Obama put into action the Female Veteran Suicide Prevention Act.

Figure 3: Percent Changes in Age-Adjusted Rates of Suicide Among Veterans and  Civilians, 2001-2014

“Establishing which mental health programs are most effective for women veterans will go a long way in ensuring they are receiving the best care possible, tailored to their unique needs, and will help inform the national dialogue on what works to prevent suicide,” Kayla Williams, an Army veteran of Iraq now serving as director of the Center for Women Veterans at the VA, said shortly after Obama signed the bill into law. “VA recognizes that gender-related issues can be important components of care, and the Female Veteran Suicide Prevention Act gives us more tools to analyze the data so we will be able to focus our resources on the most effective treatments that bring the greatest satisfaction to women veterans and save lives.”

In a 2011 Pew Research Center study, 84 percent of Post-9/11 veterans said that the public does not understand the problems faced by those in the military or their families. These numbers point to the isolation veterans feel when entering the civilian world. The lack of community that was once the life and blood of their lives is taken from them, and they feel alone. These results and findings point to the rise of suicide and suicide attempts among post 9/11 veterans.

22 A Day?

There is a standard narrative among the veteran community: 22 veterans kill themselves everyday. According to Military Times, this statistics is widely believed by the masses, however, according to the VA’s 2012 Suicide Data Report, “It is recommended that the estimated number of veterans be interpreted with caution due to the use of data from a sample of states and existing evidence of uncertainty in veteran identifiers on U.S. death certificates.” Essentially what this is providing for the community is a generalization, rather than a proven fact.

This statistic comes from the VA’s 2012 Suicide Data Report, which analyzed death certificates from 21 states, from 1999 to 2011. The report calculated a percentage of suicides identified with veterans out of all suicides in death certificates from the 21 states during the project period, which turned out to be 22 percent. (By point of reference, about 13 percent of U.S. adults are veterans, according to a 2012 Gallup poll.) Then the report applied that percentage against the number of suicides in the U.S. in a given year (approximately 38,000). Divided by the number of days in a year, the report came up with 22 veteran suicides a day. So theoretically it is accurate, but when looked at by face value, it is a little different.

Nevertheless, the veteran community has taken on the endeavor of running with “22 a day” in recent years. Nonprofits such as “Mission 22” and “22 Too Many” are among the organizations dedicated to fighting mental health issues within the veteran community. Their focuses are, of course, the mass veteran community; however, they do primarily scope in on post 9/11 veterans because of the significant levels of suicide among this specified group.

These groups bring high levels of awareness to the growing issue of veteran suicide, even if their acclaimed “22” is not accurate on the surface. From fun runs dedicated to honoring fallen soldiers to lobbying for a redefined approach to veteran suicide, these groups look out for the veteran in a broader and more personal way.

The Veteran Communities Involvement

Throughout all the statistics and lobbying done by Congress and the American people, suicide within this community still continues. It is through the power of involvement and interaction amongst veterans that the suicide rate can diminish. Organizations, veteran-owned businesses, influencers, and micro get-togethers had become the veterans way of keeping each other accountable like they were trained to when they were serving together. The rise of veteran-owned businesses in the late 2000s has caused an even more significant increase in the veteran communities outreach to one another. The t-shirts, the beer mugs, and the ruck marches to name a few are all created and formulated by the veteran community to fight the rise of mental illness and suicide within the veteran world.

Companies like Black Rifle Company or Nine Line Apparel have become pinnacles within this community for veterans to rely on for mental stability. The use of their merchandise and advocacy within higher levels of government have enacted more awareness and efforts to reduce veteran suicide.

Furthermore, media producers such as VETtv, a channel operating service similar to Netflix, has burst onto the scene to provide post 9/11 veterans with dark humor that only they can understand and enjoy. These efforts by these companies have brought veterans together to focus on a common goal: the surviving of every veteran especially those transitioning out of active duty.

Image 1: VETtv is a Netflix mirror media production company focusing on dark humor for the post 9/11 veteran.

Donny O’Malley, the CEO of VETtv, was a Marine Captain for several years and has a special place for the veteran community. He organizes and participates in several ruck marches across the United States in an effort to raise awareness regarding veteran suicide and the importance of a community and veteran-based family. His walks have brought together veterans that have served with each other and those who have not; however, these marches become a perfect example of the importance and value a community is to the veteran. The need for a stable group of like-minded individuals is the pinnacle to the steady and confident post 9/11 veteran transitioning into the civilian world.

Along with the growing number of vanter-companies comes the nonprofits like “Lifeline for Vets.” This organization is created by veterans to assist the VA in their ever growing numbers of suicide hotline callers. Do to the number of callers backing up the system and causing veterans to fall victim to waiting in their thoughts, Lifeline for Vets was created to be an alternative for veterans seeking someone to talk to about their mental health.

Conclusion and Explanation

The magnitude that the veteran has had on the safety and well being of the United States is unmeasured. The selflessness, the fortitude, and the attitude of these warriors are what has become their eternal enemy. The fear of exposure felt by these veterans when dealing with suicidal thoughts drives some never to report or seek out help. They fall into the inevitable spiral of drugs and alcohol to numb their depressions and anxieties experienced in war and in peace times. Through the power of a community and the selflessness of nonprofits that focus on the importance of veteran mental health is vital for the rise of veteran suicide to diminish and fall tremendously.

Recommendations

As stated earlier in this report, the need for a reliable and active community is essential to the fundamental diminishing of the veteran suicide rate. The increasing numbers of post 9/11 veterans committing suicide are scary and unwanted by the general public; however, there isn’t much being done to help advocate for changes besides veteran-owned corporations and “22 a day” companies. There is a need for accountability and trustworthiness here. Veterans and service members fight similar battles on different grounds and the need for focuses and scoped measures for both these groups is crucial for both the battlefield and the homefront.

Within the bounds academics, the Veteran Center on college campuses is so powerful in the mental health of hardened veterans. The experiences by these soldiers in the civilian world create a war within their heads, and the Veteran Centers should become a place where veterans can interact and grow as one. So the need and continued funding of Veteran Centers on college campuses is a must if the goal is to promote and stabilize the well being of the veterans of our great nation.

Along with these recommendations comes the simplest of strategies: listening. A veteran needs an open ear. Someone they can talk to about their troubles, but also someone they can trust unconditionally. Becoming that person to a hard-shelled veteran is not the easiest, but the battles these men and women are facing are much harder.

 

 

 

 

Resources

 III, Leo Shane. “VA: Suicide Rate for Younger Veterans Increased by More than 10 Percent.” Military Times, Military Times, 2 Oct. 2018, www.militarytimes.com/news/pentagon-congress/2018/09/26/suicide-rate-spikes-among-younger-veterans/.

Bare, Stacy. “The Truth About 22 Veteran Suicides A Day.” Task & Purpose, Task &  Purpose, June 2016, taskandpurpose.com/truth-22-veteran-suicides-day/. 

“Profile of Post-9/11 Veterans: 2014.” Vets.gov, National Center for Veterans Analysis and Statistics, May 2016, www.va.gov/vetdata/docs/specialreports/post_911_veterans_profile_2014.pdf.

Thompson, Mark. “Why Are So Many Female Veterans Killing Themselves?” Project On Government Oversight, POGO, 16 Oct. 2016, www.pogo.org/analysis/2017/10/why-are-so-many-female-veterans-killing-themselves/.

Villatte, Jennifer. “Suicide Attempt Characteristics Among Veterans and Active-Duty Service Members Receiving Mental Health Services: A Pooled Data Analysis.” NCBI, NCBI, 18 Sept. 2015, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4699574/.

Whiteman, Mauro, and Greg Kohn. “Who Are the Post-9/11 Veterans?” Veteran Suicides Twice as High as Civilian Rates – News21, NEWS21, 2011, backhome.news21.com/interactive/demographic-interactive/.