Veteran Suicide Prevention: Rates, Risk Factors, and Warning Signs

Suicide in the U.S. claimed more than 45,000 lives in 2017, including those of 6,139 military veterans. Veterans die by suicide at 1.5 times the rate of the civilian population.1 According to data from 2001 to 2007, the risk of suicide was found to be greatest in the first 3 years after leaving military service. Young, unmarried, white males who were enlisted and served in the Army or Marines were the most at risk.2

Why Are Veterans at Risk?

a veteran struggles with suicidal thoughts

The increased risk of suicide among veterans, as compared to the civilian population, is a subject of numerous studies and ongoing investigation. There is no simple, easy answer to explain the rate of veteran suicide, but some potential risk factors have emerged.

One study noted that the stressors most related to suicide among veterans were:3

  • Being deployed frequently.
  • Being deployed for significantly long periods of time.
  • Being deployed to unsafe/hostile locations.
  • Being exposed to extreme stress.
  • Physical and sexual assault in the service (risk for both women and men).
  • Injuries related to military service.

Another recent study that asked veterans to choose from a long list of reasons for their attempted suicides noted that the most common reason selected was a desire to end intense emotional suffering. According to the study, veterans would often give a list of reasons, averaging 10 each, for their desire to end their lives—an indication of how complex the issue is.

Myths & Truths About Suicide

Suicide is a serious problem for both veterans and civilians; however, there are persistent myths surrounding suicide and how to help people in crisis. Some of the myths and truths about suicide include:3,5

Myth: People who commit suicide wanted to die.
Truth: Many people who attempt suicide want to live very much but see suicide as the only way out of their suffering. Many people seek emergency help right after an attempt.

Myth: Suicide results from long-standing crisis.
Truth: The average length of a crisis that leads to suicide is 2 weeks.

Myth: More women commit suicide than men.
Truth: While women attempt suicide more often, men complete suicide at a significantly higher rate than women do.

Myth: Many suicide threats are attention-seeking behaviors and don’t require intervention.
Truth: Any communication of an intent to commit suicide should be taken seriously.

Myth: Talking about suicide gives people the idea to try to kill themselves.
Truth: Talking about suicide does not lead people to hurt themselves. Rather, discussing suicidal thoughts openly often prompts people to ask for help.

Myth: People who are considering suicide keep it secret.
Truth: Most people who attempt or complete suicide give many warnings through their words and behaviors.

Myth: Once a person has made up their mind to commit suicide, you cannot stop them.
Truth: Intervention—especially early intervention—with people who are suicidal is effective in preventing suicide.

Myth: A person would never commit suicide because they have too much to live for (family they love, plans for vacation, a good job, etc.)
Truth: You can never assume that a person won’t commit suicide by looking at external factors. The person may have severe inner turmoil that is unseen to others.

Myth: Drug and alcohol abuse aren’t linked to suicide.
Truth: Addiction raises a person’s risk for suicide. Many people who attempt suicide use alcohol or drugs before doing so. 

Warning Signs of Suicide in Veterans

a treatment specialist discusses a suicidal veterans symptoms

It can be difficult to tell if someone is suicidal, but the mnemonic Is Path Warm can help you look for common warning signs.6

  • Ideation: Communication in some form of suicidal thoughts.
  • Substance use: Increased use of drugs or alcohol.
  • Purposelessness: Lacking meaning, not feeling a reason to live.
  • Anxiety: Displaying signs of increased anxiousness, such as sleep changes, agitation, and nightmares.
  • Trapped: Feeling a sense that there is no way out of current suffering.
  • Hopelessness: Losing sense of hope for self, others, or the future.
  • Withdrawal: Distancing self from friends, family, hobbies, employment, etc.
  • Anger: Rage, revenge-seeking.
  • Recklessness: Acting careless, taking extreme risks.
  • Mood changes: Dramatic changes or sudden shifts in mood.

Other signs of potential suicidal actions can include:3

  • Looking for ways to kill oneself.
  • Trying to get pills, guns, or other means to harm oneself.
  • Giving away possessions.

Veterans Crisis Line & Other Resources

There are numerous resources for veterans in crisis. These include:

  • VA Crisis Hotline: 1-800-273-8255 (phone) or 838255 (text). This crisis line is confidential and available 24/7. Many responders are veterans themselves.
  • VA Crisis Chat Tool: If you prefer the anonymity of a chat, this confidential resource is a great way to seek help any time of day or night.
  • Vets for Warriors: 1-855-838-8255. This 24/7 peer support network serves veterans in need. If the responder determines you are in immediate danger, they will link you to a crisis hotline or emergency assistance.
  • VA’s searchable database of local resources for veterans. Find resources for yourself or a loved one with this easy-to-use tool.

Suicide Prevention for Veterans

The military and VA use numerous approaches and programs to prevent suicide. General approaches include:7

  • Increasing self-awareness and coping skills.
  • Better training among military personnel to learn to identify individuals at risk.
  • Increasing the number of mental health professionals for military personnel and veterans, as well as increasing the quality of care through evidence-based treatments.
  • Developing protocols for firearm access for at-risk service members.
  • Increased access to crisis services through hotlines and resource centers.
  • Addressing substance abuse disorders, which are a risk factor for suicide.
  • Developing zero-tolerance policies for assault and harassment, thereby reducing potential trauma, which has been linked to increased risk of suicide.

Find Hope with Greenhouse Treatment Center

a suicidal veteran who has found hope stands in front of a sunrise

If you are searching for help for yourself or a loved one at risk of suicide, know that help is available. Greenhouse Treatment Center has a unique program geared toward the needs of veterans. We are also a non-VA community care provider. If you qualify for VA community care, you may be able to come to our program utilizing your VA benefits. 

The program offers specialized treatment for co-occurring substance use and mental health disorders for veterans and first responders. Suicide is preventable, and our programs designed with the veteran in mind can help you or your loved one overcome crisis and start your journey on the path to recovery.

References:

  1. U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs. (2019). National veteran suicide prevention report.
  2. U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs. (2019). Suicide risk and the risk of death among recent veterans.
  3. California Department of Veteran Affairs. (2013). Suicide prevention.
  4. Military Suicide Research Consortium. Study reveals top reason behind soldiers’ suicides.
  5. Nevada Division of Public and Behavioral Health. (2019). About adult suicide: Truth or myth.
  6. United States Navy. (2017). Suicide warning signs.
  7. Tanilian, T. (2019). Reducing suicide among U.S. Veterans.
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