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Veteran Suicide in America: An Unspeakable Epidemic

When life gets difficult, suicide can seem like the only way out. (U.S. Air Force photo illustration/Steven White)
When life gets difficult, suicide can seem like the only way out. (U.S. Air Force photo illustration/Steven White)

Veteran Suicide in America: An Unspeakable Epidemic

There are 36,000 suicides in the United States each year.  That’s almost 100 a day.  Veterans make up 22 of those daily suicides, and that number has continued to increase over the past ten years.  The veteran population is 23 million (7 percent of the population).  If you are a veteran, you have a three times greater risk of suicide than the average citizen. Women veterans have a three times greater risk of suicide than their veteran men counterparts.  It is time to speak about this unspeakable epidemic.

Do You Want to Do More to Help?

If you really support veterans, you can help them by getting involved in their lives. Learn more about the government and non-profit programs available.

Get them to the Veteran’s Administration (VA) You might think this is all you need to do, right? Unfortunately, almost 1,000 Veterans per month who are actively being treated by the VA attempt suicide.  You can get mad at this statistic and complain about how inept the government is at dealing with our Veterans. Or, we can do something about it as individuals because VA assistance is not the only answer.

Sure, you could argue that if America treated suicide and other deaths related to mental health issues as seriously as death by terrorism, we would take self-inflicted death more seriously.  Can you imagine how much we would spend if we had 36,000 deaths each year by terrorist hands?

We as a society need to do more. 

Knowledge You have to know what the risk factors are for someone contemplating suicide as well as who you can contact and what you can do to assist a Vet in need.

Common Risk Factors:

  • Unable to Acclimate into Society or Find Work – Not getting along with life-long friends and family members, lacking the desire to enjoy previous hobbies (camping, fishing, sports, etc) and maintain permanent employment
  • Sleeping Issues – Cannot sleep at night.  The Vet has to self-medicate (pills, alcohol, etc) to consider sleeping.
  • Lack of Motivation and Energy – Functioning requires illegal drugs, copious amount of caffeine, nicotine, and other amphetamines.
  • TBI / PTSD – Any traumatic brain injury and post traumatic issues whether diagnosed or not.
  • Depression – Sad, lethargic, lacking energy to communicate or function normally.
  • Substance Abuse – This is also known as self-medicating. Alcohol is needed to sleep. To awaken requires excessive caffeine, and illegal drugs, etc.  One third of all suicides occurred when the Veteran had been drinking or doing drugs.
  • Major Life Stressor – Most suicide attempts in the Veteran community occurred roughly within two weeks after a major life stressor occurred.  Major life stressors create difficult periods of time. When you lose a family member, your home, marriage, or your job, thoughts of suicide can turn into actions.  A majority of suicides occur primarily due to financial or relationship issues.

What Can You Do to Help a Veteran?

Listen  If you know a veteran, whether they’re family or friend, and he or she may be struggling when leaving the military, the best thing you can do is listen.  It is difficult to find people who understand what a Vet has seen and been through.  Ask your Vet to talk about his experiences if they want to.  You do not have to have an answer; just listening and being there is a big help for the Veteran.  Reaffirming that they are safe at home and among friends is always nice to hear after spending many months in an environment where threats are real and just traveling in a vehicle can be deadly.

Vet on Vet Help If you are a Veteran and on the right track with your life, reach out to old buddies and check on them.  Your battle buddy may still need you. Talking to someone who completely understands you and what you are dealing with is very helpful. 

I was recently involved in the 2nd Annual Ruck March to End Veteran Suicide in New York City.  Its founder, USMC vet Gene Wu from www.Vethack.org, stated:

“One of the veterans told me a pretty cool story about two civilian women who asked her what the NYC march was for and they decided to walk with us for 15 minutes. They were beyond shocked to find out about the veteran suicide rate in this country and vowed to do something.  I think we accomplished the two missions we have for the annual ruck march:

  1. Raise awareness of the veteran suicide epidemic to the general public.
  2. Build camaraderie between veterans as well as between veterans and civilians.”

Veterans of Wall StreetVeterans on Wall Street (VOWS) is an initiative dedicated to honoring former and currently military personnel by facilitating career and business opportunities and symposiums in the financial services industry. 

There are many other veteran organizations; search online for more information on the many ways to help a veteran.

Keep Asking Your Vet to Spend Time With You Going camping, skiing, fishing, and just getting outside walking around and re-connecting with nature is a huge help for Veterans. Being a friend is critical. Doing simple things like working out, or throwing a baseball or football in the yard can be a refreshing activity for the mind and body.

There are programs that can assist the Veteran as well as the family to better function.

  • Veteran Upward Bound ProgramVeterans Upward Bound is designed to motivate and assist veterans in the development of academic and other requisite skills necessary for acceptance and success in a program of postsecondary education. The program provides assessment and enhancement of basic skills through counseling, mentoring, tutoring and academic instruction in the core subject areas. The primary goal of the program is to increase the rate at which participants enroll in and complete postsecondary education programs.
  • The Mission ContinuesThis program shows vets and others in the community that service is a part of all of us and can provide the tools and infrastructure to helping vets help themselves and others.
  • Team RubiconTeam Rubicon unites the skills and experiences of military veterans with first responders to rapidly deploy emergency response teams all over the country and world.
  • The Bob Woodruff FoundationFrom the Mission Statement: Physical and hidden injuries are challenging on their own. But sometimes, these injuries can lead to a cascade of other trouble — unemployment, depression, substance abuse, even suicide. Our mission is to ensure injured veterans and their families are thriving long after they return home.

This epidemic is not going to get better until we all have a role in helping a friend or family member struggling in life. There are many avenues for healing.  This has to be a full effort using the mind, body, and spirit to recapture who the veterans were before they deployed. 

Who Can You Call if you Need Help For Yourself or Loved One?

For more information, veterans currently enrolled in VA health care can speak with their VA mental health or health care provider. Other Veterans and interested parties can find a complete list of VA health care facilities at www.va.gov, or they can call VA’s general information hotline at 1-800-827-1000.

The Veterans Crisis Line connects veterans in crisis and their families and friends with qualified, caring VA responders through a confident, toll-free hotline, online chat, or text. 1-800-273-TALK(8255), and press 1.

VA Suicide Prevention Fact Sheet

Statistics Source:  Office of Actuary, Veteran Population Projections Model (VetPop2014)

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