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Veteran Suicide: Expanding Efforts to Prevent Tragedy


The World Health Organization reports that suicide is a global problem, taking close to 800,000 lives every year. No one disputes their statement that “every suicide is a tragedy that affects families, communities and entire countries, and has long-lasting effects on the people left behind.

What is suicide?

Suicide is the taking of your own life.

A person may reach a point where they no longer feel capable of dealing with life stresses – like chronic pain or illness, financial problems, or a relationship breakup – and decide that suicide is the solution.

Mental illness and alcohol or substance abuse disorders are linked to many suicides, but these catastrophes can also occur impulsively. Sadly, U.S. war veterans have a high suicide rate. The U.S. military wrapped up 2018 with a troubling, sad statistic: It experienced the highest number of suicides among active-duty personnel in at least six years.

What are war veterans?

War veterans are specifically “those persons who were ordered by any US Armed Forces branch to foreign waters or soils, to take part in non-direct or direct support activities against a United States enemy.”

Why is extra attention being given to army suicide?

It’s only natural that attention is given to veteran suicide risk because the statistics for them are alarming. Compared to the U.S. population, both deployed and non-deployed veterans have a significantly higher risk of suicide.

In 2018, the Navy alone saw their highest number of active-duty suicides since 2006. In one example, high-profile and highly respected U.S. Navy Vice Admiral Scott Stearney was found dead of an apparent suicide in his Bahrain residence. He oversaw U.S. Naval Forces in the Middle East.

The explanation given for a high number of veteran suicides in this country by Veterans Affairs experts is that a war veteran falls into certain high-risk groups for suicide – being male, having access to guns, and living in a rural area. But suicides of female veterans have risen alarmingly as well.

Their report states also: Many suicides involve older veterans; age 50 and older. But 31 percent of these suicides were by veterans 49 and younger. In other words, men in the prime of life. Equally shocking are active-duty suicides… those on active duty hit a record high in 2012 – almost one a day. That means there were more suicides among active-duty soldiers than combat deaths.

In a similar vein, there’s been a steady problem of suicide for New York City police and officers all over the U.S.

The hardships of police work and the proximity of a deadly weapon can often bring about a tragic result — one almost every other day in the United States in 2018, a total of 159 deaths.

Why is ending the suicide epidemic among war veterans such a struggle for the U.S. military?

Suicide among the military isn’t new. Military suicide prevention in all branches of the military has helped raise awareness in recent years.

In an effort to be proactive with respect to mental health, military families and friends are enlisted to spot warning signs of depression and suicide, and take quick action.

Yet the numbers have continued to go up. Issues linked to suicide include military drug addiction and alcohol abuse. Members of the armed forces are not immune to substance abuse problems that affect the general population.

“Although illicit drug use is lower among U.S. military personnel than among civilians, heavy alcohol and tobacco use, and especially prescription drug abuse, are much more prevalent and are on the rise.”

What’s the connection between substance abuse and military personnel?

There’s not a single element contributing to this trend, but those in military duty definitely have high-risk factors that make abuse of drugs and alcohol more likely.

Active deployment in a combat zone is one such factor. Multiple deployments place the military at an even higher risk of developing substance abuse issues due to the related stress and trauma.

During deployment, service members may experience numerous traumas:

  • Witnessing death or serious injury of others
  • Serious injury to themselves
  • Partaking in hand-to-hand combat
  • Multiple deployments causing combat-related stress
  • Lengthy deployments with unusual work stress
  • Guilt or depression related to what they’ve seen or been ordered to do

The National Alliance on Mental Illness reports that:
…nearly a quarter of active-duty members display signs of a mental health disorder. They also state that the rate of PTSD may be as much as 15 times higher in the military population than in the civilian one.

Substance use may initially seem effective in alleviating some symptoms of PTSD or other mental health issues, but over time could actually exacerbate the symptoms and lead to the development of a co-occurring substance use disorder.

Combat-related injuries and the strains from carrying heavy equipment during multiple deployments may be related to the trend of increasing opioid abuse. Pain reliever prescriptions written by military physicians quadrupled between 2001 and 2009.

A recent documentary by the Citizens Commission On Human Rights places the blame elsewhere: the soaring rates of psychiatric drug prescriptions since 2003.

Their claim is that: “Known medication side effects of these drugs such as increased aggression and suicidal thinking are reflected in similar uptrends in the rates of military domestic violence, child abuse and sex crimes, as well as self-harm.”

“Pull the string further and you’ll find psychiatrists ever widening the definitions of what it means to be “mentally ill,” especially when it comes to post-traumatic stress disorder in soldiers and PTSD in veterans… diagnoses of psychological disorders such as PTSD, personality disorder and social anxiety disorder are almost inevitably followed by the prescription of at least one psychiatric drug.”

Opinions differ widely on who should and who shouldn’t be using psychiatric drugs. CCHR alleges that psychiatrists know their drugs don’t actually cure anything, but merely mask symptoms and have dangerous side effects including possible addiction. They urge
soldiers and vets to become educated on the true dangers of psychiatry and psychiatric drugs.

Others disagree, and advocate for a medical approach, often combined with other tools for managing the symptoms. Choosing the right plan to treat depression, anxiety, PTSD and other mental health conditions is a weighty and often complicated decision. Each individual case is unique.

What can be done to prevent suicide, not only among veterans but also for others?

Those who are at risk of suicide need others in their lives who can help them to recognize what’s happening, and steer them toward appropriate help.

Depression and anxiety are a bit different; either could lead to suicide if not identified for some type of intervention. Sometimes depression and anxiety symptoms go hand-in-hand.

Unfortunately, about half the people who have depression never get it diagnosed or treated.

Recognizing the symptoms of depression is key. They can include:

  • Depressed mood
  • Lack of interest in enjoyable activities
  • Increase or decrease in appetite
  • Insomnia or hypersomnia
  • Slowing of movement
  • Lack of energy
  • Feelings of guilt or worthlessness
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Suicidal thoughts or behaviors
  • Other changes

Anxiety symptoms are typically:

  • Excessive worry
  • Restlessness
  • Being easily fatigued
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Irritability
  • Sleep disturbance
  • Muscle tension

Are suicide signs similar to these two?

Not everyone who attempts suicide makes their intentions obvious, but some will exhibit warning signs.

Warning signs: verbally or behaviorally – precede most suicides. Therefore, it’s important to learn and understand the warnings signs associated with suicide. Many individuals who are suicidal may only show warning signs to those closest to them. These loved ones may not recognize what’s going on, which is how it may seem like the suicide was sudden or without warning.

Keep in mind that people who die by suicide are not being selfish. Typically, people do not die by suicide because they do not want to live – people die by suicide because they want to end their suffering. These individuals are suffering so deeply that they feel helpless and hopeless.

Behaviors on this list should be taken very seriously:

  • A sudden switch from sadness to extreme calmness, or appearing to be happy
  • Always talking or thinking about death
  • Isolating themselves
  • Clinical depression that gets worse
  • Taking risks that could lead to death, such as driving through red lights
  • Increased substance abuse
  • Increased anxiety
  • Making comments about being hopeless, helpless, or worthless
  • Putting affairs in order, like tying up loose ends or changing a will
  • Saying things like “It would be better if I weren’t here” or “I want out”
  • Talking about suicide
  • Looking for a way to access lethal means
  • Posting comments about wanting to die
  • Sleeping too little or too much
  • Visiting or calling close friends and loved ones

If someone you know shows any of the above warning signs, get involved as much as possible, and get professional help, too. Don’t ever assume someone who’s suicidal knows how to get help, or that anyone else is aware of what’s happening.

You can be the one to literally save a friend or family member’s life. urges taking these 5 steps to help someone who’s at risk.

  1. Ask. Talking about suicide will NOT lead to or encourage suicide.
  2. Keep them safe.
  3. Be there.
  4. Help them connect.
  5. Follow up.

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