- Every day, 22 veterans take their own lives. That's a suicide every 65 minutes.
- If a veteran intentionally crashes a car or dies of a drug overdose and leaves no note, that death may not be counted as suicide.
- A survey by the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America showed that 30% of service members have considered taking their own life.
The suicide rate among service members is an epidemic. Leon Panetta, the former Secretary of Defense agreed six years ago. Unfortunately, data regarding the veteran suicide rate is incomplete. For example, veterans who commit “suicide by cop” are not included in the tally. The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has made an appeal for more uniform reporting of suicide data.
Now, as one of the “gray hair veterans” who suffers from the physiological and psychological wounds of combat’s “heat, light and steel,” I most definitely agree. Every day, 22 veterans take their own lives. That’s a suicide every 65 minutes. As shocking as the number is, it may actually be higher. The figure, released by the VA is based on the agency’s own data and numbers. Experts have no doubt that people are being missed in the national counting of veteran suicides.
Part of the problem is that there is no uniform reporting system for veteran deaths. It’s usually up to a funeral director or a coroner to enter a veteran’s status and suicide on a death certificate. Veteran status is a single question on the death report, and there is no verification of it from the Defense Department or the VA. Birth and death certificates are only as good as the information that is entered.
A homeless person who has no one who can vouch that he or she is a veteran– or others whose families don’t want to divulge a suicide because of the stigma associated with mental illness– they may pressure a state coroner to not list the death as suicide. If a veteran intentionally crashes a car or dies of a drug overdose and leaves no note, that death may not be counted as suicide. It’s very difficult to capture that information.
A recent analysis found that the annual suicide rate among veterans is about 30 for every 100,000 of the population, compared with the civilian rate of 14 per 100,000. The analysis of records from 48 states found that the suicide rate for veterans increased an average of 2.6% a year which is more than double the rate of increase for civilian suicide. Nearly one in five suicides nationally is a veteran, even though veterans make up about 10% of the U.S. population.
The VA report itself acknowledged “significant limitations” of the available data and identified flaws in its report. The ability of death certificates to fully capture female veterans was particularly low; only 67% of true female veterans were identified. Younger or unmarried veterans and those with lower levels of education were also more likely to be missed on the death certificate.
Combat stress is just one reason why veterans attempt suicide. Military sexual assaults are another. Research is finding that military victims of violent assault or rape are six times more likely to attempt suicide than military non-victims.
More than 69% of all veteran suicides were among those 50 and older. Mental-health professionals said one reason could be that these men give up on life after their children are out of the house or a longtime marriage falls apart. They are also likely to be Vietnam veterans who returned from war to a hostile public and an unresponsive VA. Combat stress was chalked up to being crazy, and many Vietnam veterans lived with ghosts in their heads without seeking help.
Even though more older veterans are committing suicide, it’s difficult to predict what the toll of America’s newest wars will be. A survey by the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America showed that 30% of service members have considered taking their own life, and 45% said they know an Iraq or Afghanistan veteran who has attempted suicide.
“There’s probably a tidal wave of suicides coming,” says Brian Kinsella, an Iraq war veteran who started Stop Soldier Suicide, a nonprofit group that works to raise awareness of suicide. For more information visit their website or call 844-889-5610.
If you or someone you know needs help visit the Veteran Crisis Hotline or call 800-273-8255.