Veteran Suicide: Risk and Prevention
Suicide is an unfortunate part of reality for many retired service members and their families. Active duty can expose a veteran to a number of traumas and experiences that civilians simply can’t understand or relate to. Members of our armed forces can come back from deployment and find it difficult to assimilate back into civilian life.
Distressing experiences in combat and other factors can increase a veteran’s risk of suicide. Veterans are at an increased risk for suicide compared with non-veterans. In fact, in 2017, an adult veteran was 1.5 times more likely to die by suicide than non-veteran adults.1
In this article, you’ll learn the warning signs, risk factors for veterans committing suicide, the role that substance use, addiction, and mental health play in veteran suicide, and ways to get help.
There is hope if you are a veteran suffering from addiction and/or mental health issues and you are having suicidal thoughts. Suicide is not the answer. If you or someone you know may be at risk, help is available.
Warning Signs of Suicide
Suicide is a major public health concern, and rates have been on the rise since 2005. The average number of daily suicides rose from 86.6 in 2005 to 124.4 in 2017; 15.9 of the daily deaths in 2005 were veterans, compared with 16.8 in 2017. 1
While you may not think there is much you can do to prevent death by suicide, there are specific warning signs that you can look for. These warning signs can be an indicator that a person is in imminent risk. Everyone plays a part in preventing suicide.
Warning signs can alert you to an immediate risk of suicide or they can be an indicator that a person is in crisis, which can potentially lead to suicide. Warning signs that need to be acted upon immediately include:2
- Risky and self-destructive behaviors including flippantly handling weapons or drug misuse.
- Discussing a plan for suicide.
- Asking or looking for means to commit suicide.
- Thoughts of suicide.
Warning signs that may be an indicator that a person is in crisis can include: 2
- Social withdrawal from friends and family.
- Mood swings including irritability, an increase in anxiety, and feelings of hopelessness.
- Increased use of drugs and/or alcohol.
- Impulsive and risky behaviors.
- Difficulty falling or staying asleep and other sleep changes.
- Difficulty finding a purpose in life.
Causes of Veteran Suicide & Suicidal Thoughts
Suicide is a highly debated topic with no ‘one size fits all’ explanation. Many factors combine to increase a person’s risk of suicide. Each year from 2008 to 2017, more than 6,000 veterans died by suicide.1(page 3, key results) That equates to more than 60,000 veteran deaths from suicide.
Risk factors that can increase a veteran’s risk for suicide can occur on a global, national, societal, and individual level. These include:1
- Time period or decade.
- War status.
- Healthcare policies and access to various healthcare services.
- Community services available for support.
- Social supports including friends and family.
- Personal health (mental, physical).
On an individual and community basis, factors that can increase a veteran’s risk for suicide include socioeconomic status, financial stress, mental health issues, substance abuse problems, health and medical issues, and social connectedness. Combat, deployment, trauma, and assimilating back into civilian culture are some of the additional challenges that veterans face. Transitioning from combat into civilian society can pose a challenge for many.
Studies have shown that:1
- Social isolation may increase a person’s risk of suicide.
- Veterans who experience physical pain, mental health issues such as anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), sleep disorders, or have a brain injury are at a higher risk of suicide than those who do not.
- Veterans who were enrolled in the Veteran’s Health Administration (VHA) and reported homelessness had higher rates of suicide than other VHA veterans.
- Low socioeconomic status, poverty, and unemployment lead to homelessness, which is a risk factor for suicide.
How Substance Abuse Plays a Factor in Veteran Suicide
It is an unfortunate reality that substance abuse plays a factor in veteran suicide. Studies show that over 30% of veteran suicides occurred after drug or alcohol use.3 The development of substance use disorders or SUDs is a culmination of many interplaying factors.
Having a genetic predisposition including a family history of substance abuse, exposure to drugs and alcohol, age of first use, social supports, and mental health issues can all play a role in the development of SUDs.
Additional factors specific to veterans play a role in the development of SUDs. These factors include:3
- Exposure to combat.
- Difficulty assimilating into civilian life in areas including family and employment.
- PTSD as a result of military trauma.
Some substances are more commonly abused by veterans than others. The most common SUD among veterans is alcohol use disorder and veterans are more likely to engage in heavy alcohol use and more likely to use alcohol than non-veterans.3
- Veterans with increased levels of combat exposure are at an increased risk of problematic alcohol use including binge drinking and drinking to excess.
- There is a correlation between the level of combat and an increased risk of problematic alcohol use.
- Alcohol use in veterans increases their risk of poorer physical health, propensity for violence, and mortality.
PTSD, Addiction, and Suicide
Many veterans experience intense emotional, mental, and psychological turmoil. Engaging in active combat and the uncertainties and worries associated with deployment take a major toll on your mental health. While serving in the military, veterans are exposed to traumas, stressors, and life-threatening experiences that leave a mark on their psyche. PTSD is often the result of these experiences.
Stress increases a person’s risk of developing PTSD.4 Research is continuing to uncover the connection between veteran PTSD and suicide. A study conducted among 72 veterans in Colorado revealed that the number one reason veterans commit suicide is to end emotional and psychological suffering.5
Substances are often used as a way to cope with the psychological burden of PTSD symptoms.
Substance use and PTSD occur together among veterans very often with 93.4% of veterans reporting a correlation between their substance use and their PTSD.6 Unfortunately, veterans also report that substance use increases the severity and frequency of PTSD symptoms. 6
Veterans Can Get Help
If you are a veteran in need of mental health and/or substance abuse help, contact your local VHA facility. Services available to you can include inpatient, outpatient, intensive outpatient, support groups, and case management services. Services offered at each facility vary so it is recommended that you use the locator tool.
In some cases, you may not be able to access the treatment you need through the VA due to issues like a lack of providers within a reasonable distance or wait times that are too long. In this case, the VA partners with community care providers to get you the care you need. Community care providers, of which Oxford Treatment Center is included, can help tailor a treatment program to your specific needs.
Remember, pain is temporary and recovery from substance abuse and mental health issues is possible. If you know someone who may be suffering, talk to them and help them explore possible options. If you are a veteran who needs help, reach out to a trusted loved one or contact your local VA.
- U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs. (2019). National veteran suicide prevention annual report.
- U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs. (2020). Suicide prevention.
- U.S. National Library of Medicine. (2017). Substance use disorders in military veterans: Prevalence and treatment strategies.
- U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs. (2020). PTSD basics.
- Military Suicide Research Consortium. (n.d.). Study reveals top reason behind soldiers’ suicides.
- U.S. National Library of Medicine. (2014). Substance use disorders and PTSD: an exploratory study of treatment preferences among military veterans.