The following blog post discusses military suicide. Its purpose is to inform.
If you or a loved one needs help, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. Or visit the website to chat with a crisis worker 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
The post continues now.
Suicide claims the lives of about 17 U.S. military veterans each day. And the rate of suicides among the active-duty military population is growing, too.
There are no easy solutions to this tragic problem.
But awareness, understanding and interventions may help reduce the number of lives lost in this way each year.
To raise awareness during National Suicide Prevention Week, we’re highlighting facts about suicides among the military.
Risk Factors for Military Suicides
When comparing military and non-military suicide rates, researchers usually adjust the figures for age and gender.
After that adjustment, active-duty suicide rates are about the same as rates in the general population.
Unfortunately, both trend upwards.
And the situation among veterans is grimmer still.
Male veterans die by suicide about 1.5 times more often than their civilian peers in the general population. For female veterans, the rate is 2.2 times higher.
The risk of death by suicide doesn’t seem to be evenly spread among all military branches, though.
According to a report from the Department of Defense (DoD), the National Guard had the highest rate of military suicides in 2018. For every 100,000 Guard members, there were just under 31 suicide deaths.
Rates were also higher among Marine Corps and Army members than Navy and Air Force personnel.
Some military roles seem to be associated with more suicides, too.
In the Army and the Marine Corps, that includes infantry and gun crew jobs. For sailors, rates are particularly high among those who perform electrical or mechanical repairs.
According to reports, some military and veteran suicides are related to job stress or legal troubles.
The biggest factor, though, seems to be relationship problems. Suicide rates are higher among those who have been divorced.
Other common factors for military suicides include:
- Lack of sleep
- Drug or alcohol abuse
- Sexual trauma
- Transitioning to civilian life
- Access to firearms
Depression and anxiety are also common factors for suicide in the military. According to the DoD report on 2018 suicides, about 56% of incidents involved a person with a diagnosed behavioral disorder.
National Efforts to Reduce Suicide
Military suicides are a serious problem. But there’s hope for addressing it.
Public awareness campaigns, bipartisan federal initiatives and interventions from the military community can work together to reverse the trend of increasing suicide rates.
In June 2020, the Trump Administration announced a new plan to improve military mental health and reduce suicide rates.
The President’s Roadmap to Empower Veterans and End a National Tragedy of Suicide (PREVENTS) seeks to build suicide prevention partnerships with community organizations and increase research on the topic.
Raising public awareness is another major focus of PREVENTS.
The military suicide rate shouldn’t be a deep, dark secret but a well-known fact.
Awareness allows everyone to pitch in.
Those struggling with mental health concerns need to know that help is available and that it’s okay to ask for it.
Additional Steps You Can Take
National efforts promote widespread awareness. Large-scale federal initiatives like PREVENTS, for example, may help bring down the overall numbers.
But when you’re suffering or you know someone who needs help, you need something more immediate and personal.
That’s where concentrated effort elsewhere comes into play. And for that, there are options, like the following.
Limited Firearm Access
Access to lethal means is a significant risk factor that affects military suicide rates.
Among all Americans, about half of suicides are committed with firearms.
For military personnel, that figure increases to slightly over 68%.
And for men in general, the number is even higher. Men represent about 86% of firearm suicide deaths.
Whether or not you experience suicidal tendencies, it’s important to store firearms properly and safely.
Keeping your gun locked up reduces the risk that you’ll use it in a crisis moment.
If you’re experiencing suicidal thoughts or struggling with your mental health, don’t keep a gun in the house at all.
Instead, ask a trusted friend to store the weapon for you.
Moving to a new area, returning from deployment and entering civilian life can be tricky transitions. Fortunately, there are programs available to make this transition more successful.
All military personnel and veterans can take advantage of the free inTransition program from the Psychological Health Center of Excellence.
The program’s coaches connect participants to local therapy services. And inTransition is available whether you need help for the first time or help finding a new provider after a move or life change.
If you’ve spent any time in any branch of the military, including the National Guard or the reserves, you’re eligible for this service.
Call 800-424-7877 to get started or visit the program’s website, linked above.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
Research shows that cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can help reduce suicidal thoughts and behaviors.
In one study, veterans who participated in CBT saw a 64% reduction in suicidal ideation.
Over the course of multiple therapy sessions, CBT can equip you with skills for redirecting your thought patterns and actions.
Services may be available through the military medical system or civilian facilities.
Look for a counselor who specializes in working with military members and veterans, too.
Competent counselors can help with a wide range of issues. But you’ll want someone who’s familiar with the unique challenges of military life. Not sure where to start? Ask your doctor, close friends and family for recommendations.
Your primary care doctor may offer valuable tools and support as well.
Since 2018, the VA has been screening all patients for suicidal tendencies. If this screening indicates a risk, your care provider can connect you to a mental health team.
Civilian doctors may also be able to help.
Don’t hesitate to bring up mental health concerns with your doctor. Primary care doctors can screen for mental health issues and suicide risks, but they need to know what’s going on.
Your doctor could be the bridge you need to get to a mental health professional who can help.
Important note: help is available around the clock.
If you or someone you care about is in crisis, reach out right away.
The Veterans Crisis Line provides support to all military members, veterans and their loved ones. Many of the staff members have served in the military themselves.
Call 800-273-8255, text 838255 or chat online.
As mentioned above, the Suicide Prevention Lifeline is another resource. It’s available to civilians as well as military personnel.
The phone number to call is the same as the one for military members: 800-273-TALK (8255).
There is help and hope.
The suicide rate among military members and veterans is alarming. It’s a real problem that needs real solutions. And it’s an ongoing discussion among the nation’s leaders.
But you don’t have to wait for political action to start working against military suicide.
Talk to your loved ones, even if you don’t know what to say or how to start the conversation. The Mayo Clinic offers some guidance on how to talk to someone who’s at risk for suicide.
And if you need help, just ask.
Resources exist to help you find a way forward.
Building a support system of friends, family members and professionals can help you and your loved ones deal with and mitigate stress, depression, anxiety and suicidal ideation. There’s help and hope.