Veterans are killing themselves at more than double the rate of the civilian population with about 49,000 taking their own lives between 2005 and 2011, according to data collected over eight months by News21.
Records from 48 states show the annual suicide rate among veterans is about 30 for every 100,000 of the population, compared to a civilian rate of about 14 per 100,000. The suicide rate among veterans increased an average 2.6 percent a year from 2005 to 2011, or more than double that of the 1.1 percent civilian rate, according to News21’s analysis of states’ mortality data.
Nearly one in every five suicides nationally is a veteran — 18 to 20 percent annually — compared with Census data that shows veterans make up about 10 percent of the U.S. adult population.
“Anytime a veteran who fought our enemies abroad or helped defend America from within our borders dies by their own hand, it’s completely unacceptable,” Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., chairman of the House Committee on Veteran’s Affairs, told an American Legion conference in Washington earlier this year. The suicide rate has remained consistently high, he said, adding that more work was needed to address gaps in veterans’ mental health care.
“It’s not enough that the veteran suicide problem isn’t getting worse,” he said, “it isn’t getting any better.”
A 2007 law required the Department of Veterans Affairs to increase its suicide prevention efforts. In response to the Joshua Omvig Veteran Suicide Prevention Act — named for an Iraq war veteran who committed suicide in 2005 — the department’s efforts include educating the public about suicide risk factors, providing additional mental health resources for veterans and tracking veteran suicides in each state. The VA’s mental health care staff and budget have grown by nearly 40 percent over the last six years and more veterans are seeking mental health treatment.
The law mandated that the VA design a comprehensive program to reduce veteran suicides. Provisions included training VA staff in suicide-prevention techniques, factoring mental health concerns in overall veteran health assessments, providing referrals at veterans’ request to treatment programs and designating suicide-prevention counselors at VA medical centers. It also required the VA to work with the other federal departments on researching the “best practices” for preventing suicides.
VA efforts since 2007 have shown some results. The Veterans Crisis Line — a national phone line — has experienced a steady increase in the number of calls, texts and chat session visits from former soldiers struggling with suicidal thoughts. In 2007, its first year, 9,379 calls went to the crisis line. Each year the call volume has increased, reaching a high of 193,507 calls in 2012, totaling about 840,000 overall, according to the VA.
“It’s discouraging to keep looking at the (suicide) rates, and we have to keep plugging away,” said Dr. Jan Kemp, the VA national suicide-prevention coordinator, and program manager of the crisis line. But she said without resources such as the crisis line “the rates would be higher.”
The VA is analyzing mortality data collected from states and Department of Defense records to try to understand veteran suicides. The task has been “almost impossible” until recent years, Kemp said, because the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention does not track veteran deaths and most veterans are not enrolled in the VA system.
News21 sought data on post-9/11 veteran suicides, but state statistics rarely included identifying information or detailed service records. However, a 2012 report from Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) showed that between 2002 and 2005, 144 veterans of post-9/11 wars committed suicide out of total veteran population of 490,346. In 2009, 98 men and women from post-9/11 wars took their own lives, according to that same report.
A plurality of veteran suicides has been among those 65 or older, according to the data. About 19 percent of suicides that took place between 2005 and 2011 were veterans between 18 and 44 years old, among the 36 states with available age data. It is important to reach post-9/11 veterans early, Kemp said, to help mitigate a potential increase in suicides as veterans approach those vulnerable ages.
“Maybe we can change that trajectory,” she said.
War can exact a heavy toll on the mental health of soldiers, but veterans have the same risk factors for suicide as the general population, said Craig Bryan, research director at the University of Utah National Center for Veterans Studies. Those factors include feelings of depression, hopelessness, post-traumatic stress disorder, a history of trauma and access to firearms.
“Veterans who die by suicide look a lot like Americans who die by suicide,” Kemp said.
Veterans experience periods of readjustment as they reintegrate into civilian life. Traits and training needed to survive in a war zone — like maintaining constant alertness — might contribute to troubling behaviors in civilian life, including edgy feelings while being easily startled, according to the SAMHSA report. Suicide warning signs including feelings of being hopeless, out of control, angry or trapped. Combat veterans might experience a variety of stress reactions including nightmares, sleeplessness, sadness, feelings of rejection, abandonment or hopelessness. Lack of concentration, aggressive behavior, reckless driving, and increasing use of alcohol, tobacco and drugs are other common struggles.
Clinton Hall, 35, lives in Portland, Ore., working as a supply-chain analyst. He served in Iraq and Afghanistan as an Army specialist and was discharged in 2007. One of his close friends, who also was a veteran, committed suicide upon coming home.
“The bad part about it is that he didn’t give us a chance to talk. I mean, if he had just said, ‘Hey, Clint I’m thinking about doing this.’ I could have said, hey man, I’m thinking about doing it too. You got to have that conversation. You have to tell somebody, as embarrassing as it is,” he said. “All I ever considered when I thought about (suicide) was the guilt I was feeling and just wanting a way out, wanting to not have those memories anymore.”
Concussions also are a chronic risk factor leading to suicidal thoughts, Bryan said, because head trauma makes people more vulnerable to suicidal thoughts. The dangerous daily routines of a soldier — or simply involvement in sports or accidents — increase the risk of injury.
“It turns up the volume on depression,” he said.