Title: Suicides amongst Veterans: A Catch 22
We are soldiers; we are everyday warriors. Our jobs are to protect the freedoms of civilians, both at home and afar. As members of the US military, combat and training are constant affairs. Deployments abroad have put many of us into dangerous environments. Not everyone comes home from these excursions. However, for those that do, the scars that remain are not always visible. Haunting memories of actions, constant unease and horrific scenes linger. These inner battles can follow us for the rest of our lives. They are the potential side effects to what we do for this country. They are the threat that grows within. The results of which can lead to devastating outcomes.
Dynamic Warrior (DW):
Thoughts of suicide or self-harm are widespread in veterans. Trained for combat and high-stress situations, veteran brains work differently. Most civilians do not have to expect the daily stresses that troops deal with. Echoes of this environment remain long after we leave the battlefield. In the end, we all pay a price for the lives we lead. Thus, we evolve from everyday warriors into dynamic warriors. Facing new threats, not from outside, but within. Our battles may no longer take place on a tangible field. But they can rage on just as fiercely inside of each DW.
- Catch 22:
How do we reconcile the battlefields with civilian lifestyles? Expectations and training help us deal with atrocities and violence. And when our service completes? We return home to peaceful, civilian lives. For many, constant conflict or active duty is what keeps our minds busy. It prevents us from dwelling on what we have seen and done. As the action slows when we return home, we no longer have that distraction. Our minds have time to rewind and view every action and scene. It is a catch 22. We, at times, violently defend peaceful intentions. However, peace itself reminds us of the violence we engaged in. Many of us cannot easily reconcile these differences.
Suicide statistics paint a grim picture of a country crying out for help. In fact, one person commits suicide every thirteen minutes in the US. Globally, suicide has become an epidemic. In 2015, almost 800,000 people committed suicide throughout the world. That is a rate of one suicide every 40 seconds.
- US Suicide Statistics:
In 2014, suicide accounted for 41,425 adult deaths in the US. In 2015, this increased to 44,193. This averages 121 suicides each day. By comparison, 17,793 homicides occurred in 2015. That means suicide accounted for almost 2.5 times the homicide rate in the US. Since 2001, this indicates an overall increase of 23% in adult suicides. Suicide is the tenth leading cause of death in the United States. For Americans aged 15 to 24, however, the picture is even darker. For them, suicide is actually the third leading cause of death. Furthermore, this number does not include unsuccessful attempts. Hospital records are one of the only means of recording suicide attempts. They estimate that for every successful suicide, twenty-five others attempt it. In 2013, the CDC reported that 9.3 million adults in the US had suicidal thoughts. It also estimated that 2.7 million people made suicide plans. This included how, when, and/or where they would kill themselves. Some went so far as to write or file wills. Records indicate that 1.3 million adults attempted suicide in 2013. Of these dynamic warriors, 1.1 million admitted that these made plans to die. In other words, 1.1 million people did not just have a “bad day”. Ongoing struggles gave them the time to plan and evaluate their suicide. Moreover, 1.1 million people felt there was no hope. 1.1 million people felt this was the only answer. Firearms, suffocation and poisoning were the most common means of suicide.
- Veteran Suicide Statistics:
In 2010, the Dept. of Veteran Affairs (VA) conducted a veteran suicide study. This study reported that veterans committed 22% of all adult suicides. This figure represented 9.7% of all suicides in the US. These startling figures triggered a national outcry. This study estimated that 22 veterans commit suicide every day. In 2014, the VA undertook a more wide-ranging and thorough study. In 2010, the VA only had access to three million veteran records. Furthermore, these records represented just twenty different states. The 2014 study was vastly more involved. It included fifty million records, from every state, dating from 1979 to 2014. The VA published these results in July 2016.
- VA Suicide Facts:
The 2014 VA study found that veterans committed 18% of all US adult suicides. In other words, veterans committed 7,403 of the 41,425 US suicides in 2014. Overall, they accounted for 8.5% of all suicides in the US. The 2014 results indicate that veteran suicides occur at a rate of 20 per day. Of these veteran suicides, 65% were 50 or older. Sadly, 66% of veteran suicides used firearms to end their struggles.
- Civilian vs Veteran Comparison:
Alone, the veteran suicide statistics are a bit misleading. The 18% figure from the 2014 VA study appears as a decrease. Overall, however, suicide rates in the US have increased. As previously stated, deaths resulting from suicide have increased 23% since 2001. By comparison, suicide among veterans grew 32.2%. Veteran suicides have not slowed. If anything, they have increased.
Civilian males in the US who commit suicide increased 0.3% since 2001. Sadly, male veteran suicides increased 30.5% during that period. For females, overall civilian suicides increased 39.7% since 2001. Female veteran suicides, however, increased a staggering 85.2%.
Most veterans use a firearm to commit suicide. However, 22,018 of all suicides used firearms in 2015. The use of a gun is not exclusive to any one group. Nor is drug overdose, hanging or other methods of death. However, guns are the most likely to result in death. When using a gun, 85% of suicide attempts will result in death. Suffocation, often through hanging, is the second main suicide method. It accounted for 11,855 deaths. Drug overdoses, the third leading cause, accounted for 6,816 suicides. Only 3% of these attempts will result in death by overdose.
Cause and Effects:
Suicide stories vary between each person affected. Suicide occurs regardless of gender, race, age or religion.
There are signs of an impending suicide attempt. In fact, eight out of ten people show signs of a downward spiral. Talk, behavior and mood changes are the biggest indicators. These signs can include, but are not limited to:
- Talking about being a burden;
- Expressions of hopelessness or helplessness;
- Sudden risk-taking behavior;
- Sleeping too much or too little for long periods of time;
- Giving away favorite possessions;
- Bursts of aggression;
- Use of drugs or alcohol;
- Feelings of futility;
- Sudden instances of extreme anxiety;
- Depression-like behavior (sudden highs and lows); and
- Loss of interest in things they once enjoyed.
Existing mental disorders are not the sole reason for suicidal thoughts. However, those diagnosed with a mental disorder are more inclined. Studies indicate that disorders increase suicidal risk 30% to 70%. This percentage is largely dependent on the type of disorder. Depression and bi-polar disorders are among the top contributors. Other risk factors can include:
- Stressful life events, including death, divorce of loss of job;
- Prolonged issues, such as bullying, harassment and unemployment;
- Close ties to someone who commits suicide themselves;
- Previous suicide attempts; and
- Family histories of abuse, suicides, or mental illness.
Additional factors can come from exposure to violence. This includes rape, domestic violence and assaults. Mass tragedies and increased media coverage can be a factor. Graphic stories and media shock tactics can trigger thoughts of hopelessness.
- Veteran Suicide Causes:
After 9/11, veteran suicide rates began rising. Many attributed this to the war in the Middle East. Combat veterans are at risk for suicide. However, they are not the only ones. In 2011, those without combat history committed 85% of military suicides. For civilians, please note that deployment does not always mean combat. Deployment can occur in country or abroad. In fact, 53% of these suicides came from those who never deployed. It is difficult to pinpoint what causes the rise in military suicides. The 2011 study found that Army troops had the highest rate of suicide and attempts. In order, the Navy, Air Force and Marines suicide rates followed. Attempts, however, were different. The Air Force and Marines had a higher number of attempts than the Navy. However, the ratio of Navy suicides versus attempts is the highest. In 2011, the Army reported 440 suicide attempts and 159 suicides. The Navy, however, had 87 attempts but 51 actual suicides. The roles of each military branch have parallels and differences. The dynamics of each branch and service can create a multitude of issues. Clinical studies have yet to pinpoint one specific reason.
- Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD):
Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is not unique to military troops. Still, increased exposure to stress and violence make them more susceptible. Due to this, PTSD is one of the top contributors for military suicides. In 2009, VA estimated that 31% of Vietnam veterans had ongoing PTSD. Gulf War veterans suffered at a rate of 10%. At that time, Afghanistan war veterans suffering from PSTD was 11%. Higher still, 20% of all Iraqi war veterans suffered. PTSD does not just affect veterans with combat histories. For many veterans affected with PTSD, it stems from feelings of guilt. This can include guilt caused by both actions and inactions. A combat veteran may develop PTSD. This would occur based on the violence that happened around them. However, a veteran who stayed stateside can also develop PTSD. This could be due to feelings of guilt because someone else deployed and never came back. (DW wants you to know that there is no shame in admitting to having PTSD. Deployed or not, we support you and recognize your struggles. You are a Dynamic Warrior!)
- Work Stressors:
Work-related suicides are on the rise nationally. In 2013, 270 people committed suicide at work. At that time, this was an increase of 12% from the previous year. There is a link between deployment and suicide. Bases that underwent rapid deployments had the highest numbers of suicides. Typically, commanders would have time to connect with their troops. During rapid deployment, they do not have the chance to do so. Due to this, they did not know their recruits well. Without that connection, they could not detect personal struggles. On top of that, rapid deployment decreases comradery and order. This can lead to feelings disconnect or having no purpose. Thoughts of isolation force soldiers to internalize their struggles. Thus, increasing their risk of suicide. After years of dealing with this type of environment, it becomes habit. Decades later, this habit can fester and create issues. The continued internal isolation may become overwhelming.
As stated earlier, 66% of veterans use a firearm to commit suicide. Experts believe risk increases with access to their intended method. This can include drugs, firearms, razor blades, and even rope. Active duty and veterans have easy access to firearms.
- Personal Stressors:
Everyone deals with personal stress. However, these issues may be harder on military families. For most civilian couples, fights happen. However, these couples can work through their issues. They are able to sit down and work out problems together. Troops do not always deploy locally. When afar, military families do not always have that ability. Limited contact and distance can prohibit meaningful problem solving. Prolonged time apart can have devastating effects on families. When deployed alone, yearning for loved ones can be unbearable for all parties. Yet, once home, a veteran may struggle to adjust or feel like they belong. Families that remain behind while loved ones deploy can struggle with this as well. Suspicions of cheating are more prevalent in military spouses. Long periods of separation during deployment can foster resentment. This stress can manifest in many ways, not just suicide. Many believe military divorce rates are higher than civilian’s. This is a hard theory to prove due to different tracking metrics. However, divorce rates for military families are high in general. In 2016, studies showed that female service members had a divorce rate of 6.6%. This was a 4% increase since 2015. However, males had stayed the same since 2013 with a rate of 2.6%. Overall, military personnel as a whole had a divorce rate of 3.1% since 2014. Regardless of how, veterans must deal with increased stress due to their service.
For every one person who commits suicide, someone feels the impact. An estimated six or more people will feel the devastation directly. These loved ones remain behind to grieve while struggling to understand. Loss due to death is always hard. However, loss due to suicide tends to be more complex and traumatic.
It is hard for a loved one to understand suicidal thoughts. Moreover, many do not want to believe their loved one would act on them. Because of this, suicides often appear sudden, violent and unexpected. For the families of veterans, however, this can be even harder. Veterans who come home and commit suicide survived the physical battlefields. Upon their return, families feel relieved. After all, their loved ones returned to them safely. The physical dangers of combat are behind them. Yet, in a catch 22, these veterans do not succumb to an enemy attack. In the end, they fall victim to their own inner struggle. The effects of this can blindside loved ones.
For the loved ones of those who commit suicide, the effects can be a death sentence. Studies have found that rates of suicide double for families of suicide victims. It creates a vicious cycle. One that makes dynamic warriors of all affected, not just the veterans.
Prevention and Help:
The VA has stated, “suicide prevention is everyone’s responsibility.” As suicide awareness has grown nationally, prevention and help has as well.
Since the 2010 study, the VA has focused on suicide prevention. They have increased outreach programs and resources. The 2014 study demonstrated their evolving commitment to this problem. As previously stated, suicide rates decreased from 22 (2010) to 20 (2014) amongst veterans. Six of those twenty veterans to commit suicide used VA services. This, in no way, proves that the VA can solve this issue alone. However, it does demonstrate that seeking help reduces suicide levels.
- Know Your Options:
Whether veteran or a civilian, DW wants you to stick around! Seeking help prior to a suicidal episode can make a difference. Talk to your doctor if you feel depressed or have thoughts of suicide. Find a friend or family member you can talk to for support. Talk therapy or Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) may help too. Support groups are available everywhere in this digital age as well. Whether connecting via the internet or in person, these groups can help. Sharing this connection with others can reduce feelings of loneliness. Things like exercise, sports, or other activities help improve your outlook too. If feeling overwhelmed is one of your triggers, set small goals. Doing so can help to reduce these feelings. Even small goals, such as a daily shower, can feel enormous when depressed. Start small and be proud of each goal you reach. Goals can help reduce feelings of helplessness as well. Veterans know how crucial each task is. They know how to set priorities and work for success.
As suicide awareness has grown, so have chances to receive or provide help. Aid does exist for anyone affected by suicide. Whether you have suicidal thoughts or have lost a loved one to suicide – reach out. For those feeling suicidal, immediate response suicide hotlines exist. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (NSPL) provides 24/7 support. Please call 1-800-273-TALK (8255) if you are in immediate need. The VA works closely with this suicide hotline to provide veterans with support. The Veteran Crisis Lifeline (VCL) also provides chat and text services. There is no judgment here. Please call even if you just need someone to listen.
- Giving Back:
There are many ways to give back. Often, helping others can be another avenue of self-therapy. Those who suffer from suicidal thoughts may find a release in aiding others. Also, those who lost loved ones to suicide may want to help prevent another death. National and local charities exist. As do chances for volunteer work. Dynamic Warrior is a company of fellow veterans. We believe in helping any way we can. Proceeds from each shirt sale go to charities and veteran support efforts.
Dynamic Warrior values the lives of all our veterans. Military families share in the burden many veterans struggle with. Yet it is not just veterans and their families who hurt. With so many people attempting suicide, it is clear that this nation needs help. DW aims to make a difference. We cannot continue to lose veterans and loved ones to suicide. A dynamic warrior fights every day for the chance at a better life. DW wants you to know that you are not alone. We are in this together.
The media portrays life in the US as dim and violent. Stories about suicide are often dark and hard to understand. We want to write a new story. DW dares you to be a new kind of catch 22. One that faces darkness and turns on a light. Help is out there. Know the signs. Whether you or a loved one are in crisis, we can get through this.