Suicide Among Veterans: Statistics, Risk Factors, Effects, & Prevention

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Key Takeaways

  • Veteran suicide rates are 1.57 to 1.66 times higher than nonveterans, with a notable prevalence among those under 45 years old.
  • There is a significant demographic variation in suicide rates among veterans, with an 11.6% increase from 2020 to 2021.
  • Risk factors for veteran suicide include PTSD, depression, alcohol use disorder, and the impact of societal stressors like the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • Mental health disorders such as PTSD and depression are significant contributors to veteran suicide, with substance use disorders also linked to increased risk.
  • Military service factors, including combat exposure and military culture, significantly contribute to the suicide risk among veterans.
  • Prevention strategies focus on improving lethal means safety, crisis care, and addressing mental health disorders.
  • Enhancing access to quality mental health services is crucial for preventing veteran suicide, with efforts to improve services, especially in rural areas.
  • Community and family support play a vital role in veteran suicide prevention, with early intervention and engagement being key.
  • The ripple effects of veteran suicide extend to families and communities, necessitating comprehensive support and prevention strategies.
  • Community initiatives are essential in responding to veteran suicide, with a focus on culturally relevant care and support services.

Prevalence of Veteran Suicide Compared to the General Population

The prevalence of suicide among veterans is a critical public health concern, with recent statistics indicating a significantly higher incidence compared to the nonveteran population. According to the US Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), between 2017 and 2020, the suicide rate for veterans was 1.57 to 1.66 times greater than that of nonveterans after accounting for age and sex differences. This alarming statistic underscores the urgent need for targeted interventions and support for this vulnerable group.

In 2020, the suicide rate among veterans was over twice that of the general US population, with 6,146 veterans dying by suicide, equating to an unadjusted rate of 31.7 per 100,000 people. This rate is particularly pronounced among service members and veterans under 45 years old, for whom suicide ranks as the second leading cause of death. Furthermore, the prevalence of suicidal behaviors is most notable among veterans aged 18-44 years, highlighting the need for age-specific suicide prevention strategies.

While there has been a slight decline in suicide rates among veteran men and women from 2019 to 2020, the decrease is less pronounced compared to the nonveteran population. Female veterans exhibit a suicide rate that is 2.1 times higher than their nonveteran counterparts. Additionally, less than half of all veterans are enrolled in the VA Healthcare System, which raises concerns about the accessibility and utilization of mental health services among veterans.

Exploring Demographic Variations in Veteran Suicide Rates

The suicide rates among veterans reveal significant demographic variations, with data highlighting disparities based on age, gender, and ethnicity. According to the 2023 National Veteran Suicide Prevention Annual Report, there was an alarming increase of 11.6% in the age- and sex-adjusted suicide rate among veterans from 2020 to 2021. This contrasts with a 4.5% increase among nonveteran US adults during the same period, underscoring the heightened vulnerability of the veteran population.

Further analysis from the VA’s annual report shows that the method-specific suicide rates vary by sex and veteran status, suggesting that the means of suicide differ between male and female veterans. Additionally, the JAMA Network Open study indicates that between 2017 and 2020, veteran suicide rates were 1.57 to 1.66 times higher than nonveterans after adjusting for age and sex differences. This finding emphasizes the disproportionate impact of suicide on the veteran community.

It is also noted that post-9/11 veterans have experienced a steep increase in suicide rates over the past 15 years, outpacing the overall US population growth rate. The complexities of these demographic differences are crucial for tailoring prevention strategies and providing targeted support to those veterans most at risk.

Risk Factors Contributing to Veteran Suicide

The high rate of suicide among veterans is a pressing issue that is influenced by a complex interplay of risk factors. A narrative review from PubMed highlights the importance of recognizing and promptly intervening in these risk factors to prevent veteran suicides. The review underscores the necessity of a comprehensive approach to mitigate these risks. Factors such as posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), major depressive disorder, alcohol use disorder, adverse childhood experiences, combat exposure, loneliness, and poor physical health have been identified as significant contributors to suicidal thoughts and behaviors (STBs) among veterans.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, despite an overall decline in suicide among adults, a notable percentage of veterans developed new-onset suicidal ideation and suicide planning, as reported in the JAMA Network. This indicates the heightened vulnerability of veterans to mental health crises under additional societal stressors. The 2023 National Veteran Suicide Prevention Annual Report calls for a whole-of-nation public health approach to address these issues effectively.

Understanding and addressing these risk factors is essential in developing targeted prevention strategies. Efforts include improving lethal means safety, enhancing crisis care, and facilitating care transitions, as emphasized by the White House Military and Veteran Suicide Prevention Strategy. The integration of mental health services, community support, and family involvement are crucial in creating a support network for veterans at risk.

Mental Health Disorders and Veteran Suicide

Mental health disorders play a critical role in the prevalence of suicide among veterans. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression are among the most significant mental health conditions that contribute to the elevated suicide rates in this population. Studies have shown that the stressors of combat, the experience of witnessing life-threatening events, and the separation from support systems can lead to an increased risk of depression and suicide in both active-duty personnel and veterans.

Substance use disorders (SUDs) are also notably linked to veteran suicides. Research indicates that veterans with SUDs, particularly when co-occurring with other mental illnesses, such as severe depression, face a heightened risk of hospitalization and death. The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has recognized this trend. It emphasizes the importance of suicide prevention, especially in light of the increased suicide attempts during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Furthermore, certain demographics within the veteran community, such as female veterans and those with lower levels of education or rank, are at a higher risk for PTSD, which in turn correlates with a greater likelihood of suicide. The presence of chronic pain, often found in veterans with PTSD, is associated with an increased risk of alcohol use disorder (AUD), further compounding the risk of suicide.

Addressing these mental health disorders is critical in reducing the rate of suicide among veterans. The VA and other organizations are actively working on strategies to improve mental health services, enhance community support, and provide effective treatments for PTSD and other mental health conditions to combat this urgent issue.

The Influence of Military Service on Suicide Risk Among Veterans

The relationship between military service and increased suicide risk among veterans is a complex and multifaceted issue. Studies have identified various aspects of military life, including combat exposure and the culture within the armed forces, as significant contributors to the heightened risk of suicide for veterans. The Military and Veteran Suicide Prevention Strategy from the White House and the Department of Defense’s annual suicide report highlight the critical nature of this issue.

Combat exposure is a well-documented risk factor, with veterans often facing the long-term effects of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other mental health disorders. These conditions are prevalent among service members and have been directly linked to an increased risk of suicide. The transition to civilian life also poses significant challenges, as evidenced by research indicating that suicide risk escalates post-discharge, underscoring the need for effective support systems during this critical period.

Furthermore, military culture, which emphasizes strength and resilience, can sometimes stigmatize mental health issues, creating barriers to seeking help. This stigma forms a part of the broader strategy for suicide prevention among military personnel and veterans. The unique stressors of military life, such as separation from family and the experience of combat, necessitate targeted prevention strategies that address these specific factors contributing to the suicide risk among veterans.

Strategies to Prevent Veteran Suicide

The prevention of veteran suicide is a critical and multifaceted issue, requiring coordinated efforts across various sectors. The Veterans Affairs (VA) has made suicide prevention its top clinical priority, recognizing that while suicide has no single cause, support before a crisis can be pivotal (VA Suicide Prevention). The National Strategy for Preventing Veteran Suicide emphasizes the integration and coordination of prevention activities across multiple settings (VA National Strategy).

Key strategies include improving lethal means safety and enhancing crisis care and care transitions, as outlined in the White House’s military and veteran suicide prevention strategy (White House Strategy). Additionally, the VA’s policy providing free emergency suicide prevention care has already aided tens of thousands of veterans (VA Emergency Care Policy).

Research also highlights the importance of addressing mental health disorders, such as PTSD, which are prevalent among veterans and can increase suicide risk (PMC Study). A comprehensive approach is necessary, one that includes raising awareness, educating healthcare providers, promoting evidence-based risk assessment, and ensuring effective transition from crisis care to outpatient services. This multifaceted strategy aims to foster a supportive environment, improve well-being and resilience, and enhance military culture and leadership to prevent veteran suicide.

Enhancing Mental Health Services to Prevent Veteran Suicide

Access to quality mental health services is a cornerstone in the prevention of suicide among veterans. The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has identified the prevention of veteran suicide as a top priority, emphasizing the need for accessible and high-quality mental health care. The Office of Mental Health and Suicide Prevention at the VA has been instrumental in driving initiatives that foster collaboration and coordination between the VA’s research agenda and clinical priorities to address veteran suicide. Strategic plans and annual reports highlight the importance of a comprehensive approach that includes psychosocial protective factors and addresses societal issues such as homelessness and unemployment that contribute to suicide risk.

Barriers such as high demand for services, access challenges in rural communities, and staffing shortages for specialty mental health providers are recognized obstacles to timely care. Efforts are underway to improve access to mental health care services, including telehealth services, especially for veterans in remote areas. The VA’s commitment to suicide prevention is also evident in its plan to hire community engagement and partnership coordinators focused on collaboration with communities to enhance suicide-prevention services and care coordination. 

This approach is particularly vital for veterans in rural areas who face increased suicide risk due to factors like geographic isolation and limited health care access. The VA’s multifaceted strategy underscores the role of mental health services as a critical component in the national effort to prevent veteran suicide.

The Role of Community and Family Support in Preventing Veteran Suicide

Community and family support are critical components in suicide prevention among veterans. The US Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) emphasizes that suicide prevention is possible when veterans receive support before reaching a crisis. The VA’s National Strategy for Preventing Veteran Suicide underscores the importance of early intervention and community engagement in supporting at-risk individuals.

Programs that enhance community connections for veterans, such as those facilitated by the Veterans Health Administration, demonstrate a proactive approach. By involving community members, these initiatives foster a network of support that can identify and address the needs of veterans, potentially averting crises. The VA, in collaboration with academic researchers, has initiated community-based programs that encourage local involvement in veteran welfare. Moreover, the VA encourages veterans and their families to utilize resources for dealing with challenges such as depression and isolation, which can be accessed through platforms like

Family members play a vital role in suicide prevention by offering emotional support and understanding the unique challenges faced by veterans. The VA provides resources to help individuals support their veteran loved ones and offers guidance on maintaining safety and health while providing care. Recognizing the signs of distress and encouraging veterans to seek help are key actions that families can take to prevent suicide.

Overall, community and family support systems are essential for creating a safety net for veterans, contributing significantly to suicide prevention efforts. These systems not only provide immediate assistance but also help to reduce the stigma associated with seeking help for mental health issues, which is often a barrier for veterans.

Ripple Effects of Veteran Suicide on Families and Communities

The tragedy of veteran suicide extends far beyond the individual, profoundly impacting families and communities. When a veteran dies by suicide, the aftermath can be devastating for loved ones, often leading to complex and prolonged grieving processes. Families may experience a range of emotions, including rejection, shame, and guilt, questioning whether they could have done more to prevent the loss. The psychological impact on those left behind can include anxiety, depression, posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and even suicidal ideation.

Communities, too, feel the weight of veteran suicides, which can shake the foundations of local support systems and networks. Efforts to raise awareness and funds, such as those by the American Legion Riders (ALR) Project 226, underscore the collective desire to address and prevent these tragedies. The 2023 National Veterans Suicide Prevention Annual Report notes an increase in veteran suicide, reinforcing the need for continued efforts in mental health services and community-based prevention strategies.

The Veterans Affairs (VA) is working towards a 10% reduction in veteran suicides from 2019 to 2024, focusing on enhancing programs and training for community interventions. This approach includes promoting safe firearms storage and improving access to culturally relevant care for veterans and their families. The impact of these efforts will be measured over time, with the hope of creating a supportive environment where veterans can seek and receive the help they need.

Challenges for Families of Veterans Lost to Suicide

The loss of a veteran to suicide presents unique and profound challenges for their families, often leaving loved ones grappling with complex emotions and questions. The grieving process can be especially arduous due to the nature of the loss, which may include feelings of guilt, abandonment, and a relentless search for answers. Organizations like Once A Soldier and TAPS focus on supporting these families through the aftermath, addressing both emotional and financial difficulties that can arise.

Survivors may experience ‘survivor guilt,’ a sense of personal responsibility, or the belief that they could have prevented the suicide. The Military OneSource emphasizes the importance of self-compassion and seeking support to navigate these feelings. Additionally, the complexity of navigating benefits and memorial services can be overwhelming for families, as highlighted by the Veterans’ Family, Caregiver and Survivor Federal Advisory Committee.

Community-based organizations are increasingly receiving support, such as the $52.5 million in grants from the VA, to provide suicide prevention services for veterans and their families. These services include mental health screenings, case management, and emergency clinical services, which can be crucial in the prevention and postvention of veteran suicide.

Community Initiatives in Responding to Veteran Suicide

Communities play a crucial role in addressing the challenge of veteran suicide, which remains a pressing issue with a rate nearly double that of the civilian population. As the veteran suicide rate continues to rise, community-based organizations are increasingly pivotal in providing support and prevention services. The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has recognized the importance of enhancing community connections through research and partnerships, focusing on suicide prevention strategies tailored for veterans.

One significant measure is the allocation of $52.5 million in grants to community-based organizations for suicide prevention services. These services include mental health screenings, case management, peer support, and emergency clinical services. Furthermore, the VA supports the national goal of reducing suicide by 20 percent by 2025, adapting its strategies to address suicide prevention among veterans specifically.

The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP) emphasizes the need for a culture where veterans can easily seek and receive help. AFSP advocates for public policies that enhance access to culturally relevant care for veterans and their families, promote secure firearms storage, and improve the provision of mental health and suicide prevention services. These initiatives underscore the collective effort required to mitigate the risk of veteran suicide and support those affected by it.

Communities are intensifying their response to veteran suicide by collaborating with organizations like the CDC Foundation to build capacity for prevention. Data shows that younger veterans are particularly vulnerable, highlighting the need for age-specific strategies in suicide prevention. The multifaceted approach of community response involves not only providing direct support to veterans but also fostering a supportive environment that encourages seeking help before reaching a crisis.

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