News Details

Military And Veteran Suicides Rise Despite Aggressive Prevention Efforts

By David Wood

Source: Huffington Post
Published: Thursday 29 August, 2013

WASHINGTON -- The good news: most people with military service never consider suicide. Contrary to popular perception, there is no "epidemic" of military-related suicides -- even though President Barack Obama used the word in a speech this summer at the Disabled American Veterans Convention. Among those few whose lives do spiral down toward darkness and despair, the vast majority never take that irrevocable step.

The bad news: the number of military and veteran suicides is rising, and experts fear it will continue to rise despite aggressive suicide prevention campaigns by the government and private organizations.

The Pentagon and Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), already struggling to meet an increasing demand from troops and veterans for mental health services, are watching the suicide rates, and the growing number of those considered "at risk" of suicide, with apprehension.

"It really is extremely concerning," said Caitlin Thompson, a VA psychologist and clinical care coordinator at the national crisis line for the military and veterans.

The warning signs of an approaching wave of suicides are unmistakable.

-- While the rate of suicides has traditionally been lower for the military ranks than for civilians, that trend has begun to reverse.

-- The number of suicides among active-duty troops of all services remains relatively low, at 350 last year, Pentagon data show. But that number has more than doubled since 2001, while in the Army's active-duty ranks, suicides have tripled during the same period, from 52 soldiers in 2001 to 185 last year.

-- Roughly half of active-duty troops who die by suicide never served in Iraq or Afghanistan. But there is growing evidence that war trauma weighs heavily on those who did. In one indication of deep emotional stress, the suicide rate among U.S. troops deployed to Iraq between 2004 and 2007, a period of intensified fighting, jumped from 13.5 to 24.8 per 100,000, according to a report issued in 2009 by the Army surgeon general.

-- Some 8,000 veterans are thought to die by suicide each year, a toll of about 22 per day, according to a 2012 VA study. The VA acknowledged the numbers might be significantly underestimated because they're based on incomplete data from 21 states, not including Texas or California. Even so, the data documents an increase of nearly 11 percent between 2007 and 2010, the most recent year of data in the study.

-- The population of veterans over 50 -- more than two-thirds of all veterans -- is swelling with aging baby boomers. Mostly men, they are considered more at-risk of suicide because they tend to be socially isolated, struggle with physical or mental deterioration, and possess easy familiarity with firearms.