November 9, 2020

Addressing Veteran Suicide


KEY TAKEAWAYS

  • More than 6,000 veterans die by suicide each year.
  • Republicans in Congress have led efforts to connect more veterans with support services.
  • President Trump recently signed a law to boost VA’s mental health workforce and help community organizations identify veterans who are at risk. 

Veterans die by suicide at higher rates than other Americans. Multiple deployments, difficulty in the transition to post-military life, and the stress that accompanies military service may all contribute to this crisis. Senate Republicans have been working across the aisle to help the Department of Veterans Affairs identify and treat veterans who are most at risk.

Scale of the Tragedy

According to the VA, there were 6,139 veterans who died by suicide in 2017, the most recent year for which it has data. The number has been about 6,000 every year since 2005. With one study estimating that 135 people knew each person who died by suicide, the number of people affected by the tragedy could be vast. The VA has programs to try to help veterans who are at risk, but it says that 14 out of 20 veterans who die by suicide “have not received recent VA care.”

Addressing Veteran Suicide

The number of suicide deaths has risen dramatically in the United States, up more than 40% from 2005 to 2017. While the number of veteran suicides has been stable during that time, VA reports that the rate is still 1.5 times higher than non-veterans when the numbers are adjusted for age and gender. The overwhelming majority of veterans who die by suicide are men, though female veterans are 2.2 times more likely to die by suicide than other women of the same age. Veterans between the age of 18 and 34 die by suicide at the highest rate, while among all Americans the highest suicide rates are among older people.

The rate of suicide for veterans has tended to be higher among people who left service most recently. A VA study of veterans who served between 2001 and 2007 – during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars – found that veterans faced the highest rate of suicide within the 3 years after they separated from the service. This was true regardless of whether they had ever deployed when they were in the service. 

Suicide Risk by Years after Service for 2001-07 Veterans

Addressing Veteran Suicide

Suicide is also a problem among people on active duty in the U.S. military or in the National Guard and Reserves. Last year, 498 service members and 193 military family members died by suicide. The Department of Defense says the rate is comparable with the general population when adjusted for age and gender. Enlisted men under age 30 accounted for 60% of military suicides. 

There is no single explanation for suicide among veterans, service members, or the rest of the population. Many factors, including mental health conditions, financial instability, isolation, hopelessness, history of addiction, and personal loss can all contribute to suicide. Military-specific risk factors include traumatic experiences such as combat, which may increase susceptibility to mental health conditions. Some veterans also have reported difficulty making the transition to civilian jobs and society after they leave the military.

Connecting military and veterans to help

The VA and DoD provide many lifesaving services for people who are currently or formerly in the military, including VA medical care, vet center counseling, and crisis hotlines. Veteran service organizations and military service organizations add to this by trying to connect people to these services. A 2018 study by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine found that veterans who got mental health care from the VA had a generally positive experience, though there were many veterans who were not getting this kind of care. It found that many veterans preferred using vet centers for mental health services.

In March 2019, President Trump signed an executive order to try to decrease the number of veteran suicides. It created a task force to research and provide comprehensive suicide prevention training and services. The new initiative – the President’s Roadmap to Empower Veterans and End a National Tragedy of Suicide – emphasized the need for better solutions to the crisis. These recommendations are focused on promoting employer and academic mental health and wellness practices, realigning research priorities, creating partnerships in the community to combat suicide, and increasing veterans’ access to providers qualified to help them.

Senate Republicans continue to reach across the aisle on this issue. Most recently, Congress passed S.785, the Commander John Scott Hannon Veterans Mental Health Care Improvement Act, which President Trump signed into law on October 17. Taking into account the higher rates of suicide among veterans living in rural areas, the law aims to make the VA more accessible to rural and hard to reach veterans. It attempts to boost VA’s mental health workforce by offering scholarships to mental health professionals who work at vet centers; sets up a program to explore innovations in treatment and care; and establishes grants for community organizations to help identify at-risk veterans.