Approximately every 80 minutes, a US military veteran commits suicide in the United States; for Iraq and Afghanistan, the numbers of veterans lost to suicide now outstrips casualty lists of those killed in action. The suicide rate for active duty personnel isn’t so shockingly high, but it’s still significant; in the first half of 2012, almost one soldier a day took his or her own life. Both veterans and combat personnel have experienced a steep rise in suicide rates since 2005, which notably marked a sharp increase in the intensity of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan.
This is a public health crisis and an epidemic; veterans alone account for 20% of US suicides. Clearly, the measures the Department of Defense is using to cope with this problem are inadequate, and it’s time to think about how to approach suicide prevention for this particularly vulnerable population. While the DOD is targeting privately-owned weapons, which are a common culprit in military suicides, clearly this is only the beginning of a long and complex approach.
While on duty, soldiers deal with high stress on a constant basis, with limited opportunities for decompression and processing. While counseling services are available and mechanisms are in place to flag soldiers as “high-risk,” such systems come with significant stigma, which can make people reluctant to report suicidal thoughts and other signs and symptoms of severe depression. They can risk losing their clearances, being discharged or being taken away from their units, which can serve to increase feelings of isolation and depression.
Once discharged, veterans can struggle with reintegration into society, something cited again and again by friends and family of suicide victims. They note that support services were inadequate, especially for those waiting on disability claims and other assistance, and that their loved ones had difficulty adjusting to the civilian world. Many are also coping with traumatic brain injuries — the signature injury of Iraq and Afghanistan — and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, which can complicate their ability to navigate the world even further. Charlie Rangel notes that despite the existence of transition assistance services and mental health programs for veterans, these services are underutilized, and may not meet the needs of servicemembers.
The military excels when it comes to conducting research to find the best evidence-based medicine for soldiers; refinements in battlefield medicine have greatly increased the chances of survival after serious injuries in the field, and many of those developments have trickled into the civilian world as well. Thanks to the military, civilian trauma medicine is highly advanced in the United States. Now, it’s time for the military to turn its attention to suicide prevention with campaigns focused on understanding the root causes among active duty military and veterans, and finding out the best way to address them.