I’ve noted before that an average of 22 military veterans commit suicide each day in the U.S., two of those 22 being veterans of either Iraq or Afghanistan. This is the data reported by the Department of Veterans Affairs, although it’s quite likely that the true rate is even higher.
The rate that the VA reports amounts to 8,030 veteran suicides each year. This is simply alarming, and more than double the rate of suicide in the civilian population. Why? Untreated injuries definitely have something to do with this:
- PTSD. If post-traumatic stress goes unacknowledged or untreated, additional stress and a cascade of self-destructive patterns, to include suicidal ideations, can follow. Some veterans from older generations have struggled with this their entire adult lives.
- TBI. Recent studies have shown that those who have suffered traumatic brain injuries are at higher risk of suicidal ideations throughout their lives.
- Moral Injury. This isn’t a new idea at all, although it hasn’t been addressed directly as a clinical issue. Moral injuries can result from violations of conscience, and lead to an individual socially isolating himself or herself rather than working through it with a clinician or talking with loved ones or other trusted individuals who can help. Journalist David Wood recently wrote an illuminating series on moral injury located HERE.
And then surely there are hazier, lesser known factors as well. The point here is that, although there have been tremendous new gains and insights into these trends in veterans’ mental health, the suicide rate remains a crisis of national importance. The men and women who went to war on behalf of our country are taking their own lives largely because of injuries they suffered during their service. Wounds are treatable, and most veterans recover. But the ones who struggle simply cannot be left behind.
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Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA) has actively called attention to the veteran suicide rate for years, as have as a number of other veteran organizations. But I have to report that it was truly astonishing to stand with them at the National Mall yesterday after veterans and volunteers planted 1,892 flags that represented the number of veteran suicides that have happened so far this year. It was powerful and poignant to look out at a vast field of American flags and think of those as veterans, as friends and family who lost the struggle with their wounds. About half of us veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan know a fellow vet who has committed suicide. Probably even more of us knew somebody who died acting recklessly or as if they were suicidal. This stuff is present and real and a crisis we need to figure out without further delay.
How do we solve this? Here are my suggestions:
1. Tell Your Senator to Support Sen. John Walsh’s Suicide Prevention for America’s Veterans Act. Sen. John Walsh, who served as an infantry battalion commander in Iraq, introduced this piece of legislation yesterday. It’s smart, and it needs support from the senators of your state–who respond to your calls, emails, letters, and office visits. Spread the word and get the message to senators that they need to co-sponsor this important bill.
2. Get Smart on Warning Signs and Know How to Help Those Around You. Take a few minutes to read through vital resources like the Veterans Crisis Line, learn how to notice someone who’s struggling, and resources you can help them access. Know that you have the power to save someone’s life with the right words and the right help.
3. Help Get Veterans Plugged Into a Community. Whether they’re socially isolated veterans from longer-ago wars or newly returning veterans, everyone needs to feel a sense of community and belonging, and this is the support network that makes us more resilient. Veterans organizations like the VFW, American Legion, Vietnam Veterans of America, or IAVA can give a sense of in-person or online community. Other organizations like Team Red, White, and Blue get veterans involved with fitness and sports activities. Programs like Outward Bound get veterans involved in wilderness retreats. Writing workshops like Warrior Writers get veterans involved in telling their stories. Volunteer organizations like Team Rubicon put veterans to work helping others. There’s even an organization I recently learned about that takes veterans fly fishing. There’s really something to get anyone involved. No veteran should ever feel alone, and especially not if they’re struggling.
4. Raise Awareness in Your Community About Veteran Suicide. Our communities have many issues and challenges, but I really believe this is an important one. Awareness about veteran suicide also raises awareness about suicide in general and brings people closer together. So please talk about this and spread the word any way you can.
5. Get Involved. I can’t think of any veterans organization that isn’t happy to have supportive civilian volunteers. And there are ways to work in your community to help homeless vets, veterans employment initiatives, veterans at houses of worship, and anything else you can think of. Help veterans feel connected, valued, validated, and hopeful about the future. And while you’re at it–help anyone else you can in this way, too. Suicide should never be an option for anyone, let alone those we know and love.
Let’s fix this.