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

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Last Updated - 06/30/2024

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Updated 06/30/2024

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.

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

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.

  • Suicide Rate in 2020: In 2020, the suicide rate among veterans was over twice that of the general US population, with 6,146 veterans dying by suicide. This equates to an unadjusted rate of 31.7 per 100,000 people.
  • Age-Specific Concerns: 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. The prevalence of suicidal behaviors is most notable among veterans aged 18-44 years, highlighting the need for age-specific suicide prevention strategies.
  • Gender Disparities: Female veterans exhibit a suicide rate that is 2.1 times higher than their nonveteran counterparts. Despite 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.
  • Healthcare Enrollment: Less than half of all veterans are enrolled in the VA Healthcare System, raising 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.

  • Age and Sex Adjustments: 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.
  • Method-Specific Suicide Rates: 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.
  • Comparative Analysis: 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.
  • Post-9/11 Veterans: 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 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. Key contributors to suicidal thoughts and behaviors (STBs) among veterans include:

  • Mental Health Disorders: Conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), major depressive disorder, and alcohol use disorder are prevalent among veterans and strongly linked to STBs.
  • Adverse Childhood Experiences: A history of adverse experiences during childhood increases vulnerability to mental health issues and suicidal behaviors.
  • Combat Exposure: Experiences unique to military service, such as combat exposure, can lead to emotional dysregulation and increased stress susceptibility.
  • Loneliness and Poor Physical Health: Veterans often feel isolated after leaving the structured environment of the military, which, along with poor physical health, can contribute to STBs.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the JAMA Network reported that despite an overall decline in suicide rates among adults, a notable percentage of veterans developed new-onset suicidal ideation and suicide planning, indicating their heightened vulnerability 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.

Addressing Risk Factors

Efforts to mitigate these risks include:

  • Improving Lethal Means Safety: Ensuring safe storage and access to firearms and other lethal means.
  • Enhancing Crisis Care: Providing immediate and effective crisis intervention services.
  • Facilitating Care Transitions: Ensuring smooth transitions between different levels of care to maintain continuity.
  • Integrating Mental Health Services: Combining clinical care with community and family support to create a comprehensive support network for veterans at risk, as emphasized by the White House Military and Veteran Suicide Prevention Strategy

Mental Health Disorders and Veteran Suicide

Mental health disorders play a critical role in the prevalence of suicide among veterans. Significant mental health conditions contributing to elevated suicide rates include:

  • Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD): The stressors of combat and witnessing life-threatening events can lead to increased risk of PTSD and subsequent suicide.
  • Depression: Separation from support systems and the challenges of reintegration into civilian life can exacerbate depression and suicide risk.
  • Substance Use Disorders (SUDs): Veterans with SUDs, especially when co-occurring with severe depression, face a heightened risk of suicide. The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has emphasized the importance of addressing this trend.

Demographic Considerations

Certain demographics within the veteran community are at higher risk:

  • Female Veterans: Higher rates of PTSD and suicide compared to male veterans.
  • Lower Education and Rank: Associated with higher risk for PTSD and suicide.
  • Chronic Pain: 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 for reducing suicide rates 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 conditions.

The Influence of Military Service

The relationship between military service and increased suicide risk among veterans is complex and multifaceted. 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.

Key aspects include:

  • Combat Exposure: Directly linked to PTSD and other mental health disorders, contributing significantly to suicide risk.
  • Transition to Civilian Life: Suicide risk escalates post-discharge, highlighting the need for effective support systems during this critical period.
  • Military Culture: Emphasizes strength and resilience, which can stigmatize mental health issues and create barriers to seeking help.

The Military and Veteran Suicide Prevention Strategy from the White House and the Department of Defense’s annual suicide report underscore the critical nature of these issues.

Combat Exposure

Combat experiences, such as exposure to killing and atrocities, are associated with significantly increased risk for suicide-related outcomes. Research highlights the need for suicide prevention programs to consider the nuanced effects of combat exposure.

Military Culture

The culture within the armed forces, which can stigmatize mental health issues, forms a part of the broader strategy for suicide prevention. Addressing these unique stressors through targeted prevention strategies is essential to mitigating the heightened risk of suicide among veterans.

Strategies to Prevent Veteran Suicide

Preventing veteran suicide requires coordinated efforts across various sectors. The Veterans Affairs (VA) has made suicide prevention its top clinical priority, recognizing that early support 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:

  1. Improving Lethal Means Safety: Ensuring safe storage and access to firearms and other lethal means (White House Strategy).
  2. Enhancing Crisis Care: Providing immediate and effective crisis intervention services (White House Strategy).
  3. Facilitating Care Transitions: Ensuring smooth transitions between different levels of care to maintain continuity.
  4. Free Emergency Suicide Prevention Care: The VA’s policy has already aided tens of thousands of veterans (VA Emergency Care Policy).
  5. Addressing Mental Health Disorders: Focusing on conditions like PTSD that are prevalent among veterans and increase suicide risk (PMC Study).

A comprehensive approach includes raising awareness, educating healthcare providers, promoting evidence-based risk assessment, and ensuring effective transition from crisis care to outpatient services. This 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

Access to quality mental health services is crucial for preventing suicide among veterans. The VA emphasizes the need for accessible and high-quality mental health care. 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.

Key Initiatives:

  • Office of Mental Health and Suicide Prevention: Driving initiatives that foster collaboration between research and clinical priorities.
  • Comprehensive Approach: Including psychosocial protective factors and addressing societal issues like homelessness and unemployment that contribute to suicide risk.
  • Telehealth Services: Especially for veterans in remote areas, improving access to mental health care.
  • Community Engagement and Partnership Coordinators: Enhancing collaboration with communities to improve suicide-prevention services and care coordination.

Barriers such as high demand for services, access challenges in rural communities, and staffing shortages are recognized obstacles. 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 

Community and family support are critical components in suicide prevention among veterans. The VA emphasizes that suicide prevention is possible when veterans receive support before reaching a crisis.

Community Support:

  • Early Intervention and Community Engagement: The VA’s National Strategy for Preventing Veteran Suicide underscores the importance of supporting at-risk individuals early.
  • Community-Based Programs: Initiatives that involve community members to foster a network of support, identify needs, and address potential crises.
  • Resources for Dealing with Challenges: Platforms like provide resources for veterans and their families to address depression and isolation.

Family Support:

  • Emotional Support and Understanding: Families play a vital role in offering support and recognizing the unique challenges faced by veterans.
  • Resources and Guidance: The VA provides resources to help families support their veteran loved ones, maintain safety and health, and encourage help-seeking behaviors.

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 reduce the stigma associated with seeking help for mental health issues, a common 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. The aftermath of a veteran’s suicide can be devastating, leading to complex and prolonged grieving processes.

Impact on Families

  • Emotional Toll: Families may experience a range of emotions, including rejection, shame, and guilt, often questioning whether they could have done more to prevent the loss.
  • Psychological Effects: The psychological impact on those left behind can include anxiety, depression, posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and even suicidal ideation.
  • Support Efforts: Organizations like Once A Soldier and TAPS focus on supporting families through the aftermath, addressing both emotional and financial difficulties.
  • Survivor Guilt: Survivors often face ‘survivor guilt,’ feeling personal responsibility or believing 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 Impact

  • Collective Grief: Communities, especially those with strong military ties, feel the weight of veteran suicides, which can disrupt local support systems and networks.
  • Awareness and Fundraising: Efforts by groups like the American Legion Riders (ALR) Project 226 raise awareness and funds 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.
  • Community-Based Programs: The VA allocates grants to community-based organizations for suicide prevention services, including mental health screenings and emergency clinical services.

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.

Key Challenges:

  • Intense Grieving Process: Due to the nature of the loss, the grieving process can be especially arduous, with feelings of guilt, abandonment, and a relentless search for answers.
  • Navigating Benefits and Services: Families often find it overwhelming to navigate the benefits and memorial services available to them.
  • Support Services: Community-based organizations receive support, such as $52.5 million in grants, to provide necessary services like mental health screenings, case management, and emergency clinical services.

Community Initiatives in Responding to Veteran Suicide

Communities play a crucial role in addressing veteran suicide, which remains a pressing issue with a rate nearly double that of the civilian population.

Key Initiatives:

  • Grants for Prevention Services: The VA allocates $52.5 million in grants to community-based organizations for suicide prevention services.
  • Support Networks: Efforts to enhance community connections through research and partnerships focus on suicide prevention strategies tailored for veterans.
  • Public Policy and Advocacy: The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP) advocates for policies that enhance access to culturally relevant care, promote secure firearms storage, and improve the provision of mental health services.
  • Collaborative Efforts: Collaboration with organizations like the CDC Foundation aims to build capacity for prevention and foster a supportive environment.

The ripple effects of veteran suicide are profound, impacting families and communities deeply. Preventive strategies involve a multifaceted approach that includes enhancing mental health services, promoting community and family support, and addressing specific risk factors. By fostering a supportive environment and integrating community-based programs, significant strides can be made in reducing the incidence of veteran suicide and providing essential support to those affected by it.

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