The tragedy of suicide impacts many people in America. According to available information, suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the country today. In 2018, we lost 38,344 Americans to suicide, with mental illness and substance use disorder largely to blame for these tragedies.
Veterans are more likely to die by suicide than the rest of the population. According to available information, veterans are 150% more likely to die by suicide than people who did not serve in the military. Those numbers are even higher for female veterans, who are 2.2 times more likely to die by suicide than their male counterparts. Despite a concentrated effort by numerous stakeholders in this area, those numbers continue to rise.
In 2017, 6,139 veterans died by suicide. Unfortunately, those numbers continue to rise and remain at an average of 6,000 annually. As has been widely reported in the media, this means that roughly 22 veterans and active duty military members die every day by suicide. Even though the US has fewer veterans than in past generations, the number of suicides is still increasing.
Risk Factors for Veteran and Suicide
While veterans are more likely to die by suicide than the rest of the population, certain risk factors make someone even more likely to die by suicide within the veteran community. These include:
Gender: Female veterans die by suicide at higher rates than male veterans.
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or traumatic brain injuries m(TBI): Multiple studies have linked these two specific disorders with increased suicide attempts.
Sexual dysfunction: Sexual dysfunction, an unfortunate side effect of combat injuries, is linked to increased suicidal ideation.
“Standard” factors: The same factors that increase suicide in the general population also apply to veterans. This includes housing stability, healthcare, economic prospects, and more.
Substance use disorders: Substance use disorders using substances such as alcohol, drugs, or other prescription medications are directly linked to an increased risk of suicide.
Insomnia: Sleeping disorders and veterans is tied directly to a rise in suicide risk.
Access to Firearms: Approximately one in five veteran suicides are attributed to firearms.
All of these factors can interact with each other. For example, substance abuse can lead to insomnia, and these two factors, insomnia and substance abuse can increase suicide.
Substance Use Disorder and Veteran Suicide
Much like the link in the general population between substance abuse and suicide, there is a link between veterans’ substance use and suicide. For example, a 2019 study directly tied a rise in opioid use and veterans to suicide. Another study from 2017 specifically noted that veterans’ substance use disorders increased the risk of veterans dying by suicide. The risk varied depending on the substance in question, with sedative abuse tied to the most significant risk.
Mental Health Stigma and the Military
Despite the increased attention that suicide and mental health has received over the past decade, stigma still plays an outsized role in preventing military veterans from getting the help they need.
The military acknowledges this problem and attacks it aggressively, with multiple Executive Orders and policies specifically attempting to address stigma reduction via training and public awareness campaigns. However, it has been noted by many that the culture of the military is one that often creates a false sense of bravado and “toughness,” and this attitude can often prevent help-seeking behaviors.
In addition to stigma campaigns, the military actively combats stigma by expanding mental health availability and encouraging top commanders to discuss mental health issues openly.
Signs Someone Is Struggling
It isn’t always clear, and every person is different. However, there are often signs that someone is struggling with mental illness and may be considering suicide. This includes:
Signs of withdrawal from previously enjoyed activities.
A sense of relief, as if a burden has been lifted from the person in question.
Giving away prized personal possessions.
Talking about suicide, hurting oneself, ending one’s life, or how the world would be better off without them.
Suicide Prevention for Veterans
Appropriate measures can be taken to help reduce suicide among veterans. Prior reports and studies have examined the effectiveness of existing models and found that available programs can reduce suicide among veterans. These include specific prediction models, like the Army STARRS model and programs that specifically assist military veterans returning to civilian life.
Suicide does not exist in a vacuum. Addressing mental illness and substance abuse is vital, and there must be a more comprehensive approach. To truly help a veteran get their life back on track, a veteran must receive assistance across various areas, including employment, housing, job training, and more.
There is no question about the connection between these real-life areas and suicide risk. By helping veterans succeed in getting their lives on track, we are also helping them prevent suicide.
How To Help a Veteran
First, if you think someone is in immediate danger of ending their life, call 911 immediately.
It is also vital that you understand your limitations. Unless you are a trained therapist, you may not help someone combat their mental illness. As such, you must understand what you can and cannot do. It’s important to remember you can be instrumental in guiding them towards help.
If you think someone is struggling, talk to them. Ask if they are okay and if they have had any thoughts about hurting themselves. Ask if they have any plans and whether they feel like they are a danger to themselves. Asking about suicide will not implant the idea in someone’s head, but you can find out if they need help.
Make sure that the person knows they can find help, and there can be better days ahead. Individual stories of hope and resilience are powerful, and if you have these stories, share them.
Remember: You aren’t a therapist. All you can do is listen to someone, hear their concerns, avoid judging them, and make sure they get the help they need.
Finding Help For Veterans & Their Families
Thankfully, options exist for veterans and their families to seek help. The Veterans Administration has an entire page dedicated to finding help, and it can help point family members or veterans towards assistance. They also have specific suicide prevention coordinators that can point veterans, active military members, or their families to local, on the ground resources.
Furthermore, private health care options are available for veterans with co-occurring disorders, such as substance use and mental health. Help is available to any veteran who may be struggling. Thankfully, the evidence is clear: With proper, comprehensive treatment, veterans can recover from mental illness and substance use disorders.
If you or someone you love is in pain and struggling, please know that there is a way to recovery. Call us today for more information on how we can help you or your loved one beat their illness and get their life back on track.Leave a reply