Suicide Among Veterans: Risk Factors, Statistics, & Prevention

Last Updated: March 5, 2024

Editorial Policy | Research Policy

Key Takeaways

  • Veteran suicide rates are significantly higher than those of the general population, with 6,392 veteran suicides reported in 2021.
  • Female veterans and younger male veterans aged 18-34 are particularly at high risk for suicide.
  • Transitioning from military to civilian life poses unique challenges that can increase suicide risk among veterans.
  • Mental health disorders, combat exposure, and access to firearms are key factors contributing to high suicide rates among veterans.
  • PTSD and depression are prevalent among veterans and are linked to a higher risk of suicide.
  • Peer support programs and crisis intervention are critical components of veteran suicide prevention strategies.
  • The VA’s PREVENTS initiative and other programs aim to reduce veteran suicide rates through public health approaches and community interventions.
  • Public awareness and policy changes are essential in supporting veteran suicide prevention efforts.

Statistical Overview of Veteran Suicide Rates

The prevalence of suicide among veterans is a critical public health concern, with recent data indicating significant disparities when compared to the general population. In 2021, there were 6,392 veteran suicides, marking an increase from the previous year and a concerning 11.6% rise in the age- and sex-adjusted suicide rate among veterans. This contrasts with a 4.5% increase in suicide rates among non-veteran US adults during the same period.

Comparative studies highlight that the rate of suicide is 1.5 times higher among all veterans and even more pronounced at 2.1 times higher among female veterans compared to the civilian population. Specific age groups also show alarming trends; for instance, the highest suicide rates within the veteran community are among males aged 18-34, and the largest number of suicides occur in the 55-74 age bracket.

Despite a noted decrease in overall suicidal thinking during the COVID-19 pandemic, a significant portion of veterans developed new-onset suicidal ideation and planning. This underscores the complex and persistent nature of suicide risk factors within this group, which include higher rates of psychiatric disorders, combat exposure, and other stress-related vulnerabilities.

It is evident that veterans face elevated risks for suicide, necessitating targeted prevention strategies and comprehensive support to address this ongoing crisis.

Demographics of Veterans at Higher Risk for Suicide

The demographics of veterans who are at a higher risk of suicide are crucial in tailoring prevention strategies. According to the US Census Bureau and the Department of Veterans Affairs, the veteran population exhibits distinct characteristics in terms of age, gender, and race. Notably, there has been a rise in the number of female veterans, and post-9/11 veterans have the highest rate of service-connected disabilities. Data indicates that while the overall veteran population is declining, there are shifts in the demographic makeup.

  • The average age of veterans is increasing, with a significant portion being 75 years and older.
  • Younger veterans, those under 35, represent a smaller but important demographic.
  • Racial and ethnic minority groups among veterans are projected to grow, with Black or African American veterans expected to comprise a larger percentage of the total US population by 2060.
  • The proportion of veterans by sex and race/ethnicity is seeing modest changes, with an increase in the number of female veterans.

These demographic insights are essential for understanding the specific needs of different veteran groups and developing targeted support systems to address the heightened risk of suicide. The Veteran Population Projection Model (VetPop) provides detailed projections of the veteran population, which can be instrumental in planning future healthcare and support services.

Veteran vs. Civilian Suicide Rates: A Comparative Analysis

Understanding the disparity in suicide rates between veterans and the civilian population is critical for addressing this public health issue. Research indicates that veterans are at a significantly higher risk of suicide compared to their civilian counterparts. A study published by the JAMA Network Open reveals that from 2017 to 2020, the suicide rates among veterans were 1.57 to 1.66 times greater than that of nonveterans when adjusted for age and sex differences. This suggests a need for targeted interventions within the veteran community.

Further insights from the US Department of Veterans Affairs show that a substantial number of veterans experience suicidal ideation and attempts after their separation from service. In fact, 57% of first suicide attempts among veterans occur post-service. The 2023 National Veteran Suicide Prevention Annual Report also highlights a concerning 24.1% increase in the age-adjusted rate of suicide among female veterans, a rate that surpasses that of male veterans, emphasizing the gender-specific aspects of veteran suicide.

These findings underscore the complexity of veteran suicide and the importance of considering demographic factors such as gender, age, and service history. It also highlights the urgency for enhanced preventive measures and mental health services tailored to the unique experiences of veterans.

Key Factors Contributing to High Suicide Rates Among Veterans

The challenge of veteran suicide is multifaceted and influenced by several key factors. Addressing these factors requires a coordinated effort that includes enhancing mental health services, facilitating smoother transitions to civilian life, and ensuring that veterans have access to support networks and crisis intervention resources.

The Impact of PTSD and Depression on Veteran Suicide Rates

The mental health of veterans is a critical factor in understanding the increased rates of suicide within this population. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and depression are two of the most prevalent mental health conditions affecting veterans and have been linked to a higher risk of suicide. Studies have shown that the suicide rate among male Veteran VA users was significantly higher than that of their female counterparts, indicating gender disparities in mental health outcomes for veterans.

PTSD, often resulting from exposure to traumatic events during military service, is associated with distressing trauma memories, anger, and impulse control issues, which can increase the risk of suicide. Additionally, the experience of guilt related to combat actions can intensify suicidal ideation among veterans with PTSD. Depression, characterized by persistent feelings of sadness and loss of interest, further compounds the risk of suicide by exacerbating feelings of hopelessness and despair.

Factors such as the stress of combat, witnessing harm, and separation from support systems contribute to an increased risk of both PTSD and depression. The transition from military to civilian life can also present significant challenges that may lead to or aggravate mental health issues. Research suggests that the risk of suicide remains elevated for an extended period following a suicide attempt, highlighting the need for ongoing support and monitoring for veterans.

Effective treatment and support for mental health conditions are crucial in reducing the risk of suicide among veterans. This includes addressing co-occurring conditions such as substance use disorders, which are also linked to higher suicide rates. The importance of mental health services, peer support, and crisis intervention cannot be overstated in the effort to prevent veteran suicide.

Transition Challenges Faced by Veterans

The transition from military to civilian life is a critical period for veterans, marked by numerous challenges that can significantly impact their mental health and well-being. This transition often involves a complete shift in identity, lifestyle, and support systems, which can be overwhelming and, in some cases, contribute to an increased risk of suicide. Studies have found that suicide rates tend to increase following the transition to civilian life, highlighting the need for targeted support during this vulnerable time.

Key challenges faced by veterans during this transition include difficulties in finding employment, adjusting to a less structured life, and accessing healthcare. The emotional toll of leaving behind a close-knit military community and re-establishing relationships in civilian society can also be significant. Moreover, veterans with traumatic experiences during service may struggle with post-traumatic stress (PTS), which can exacerbate transition difficulties.

Financial instability is another pressing issue, with some veterans facing trouble paying bills or requiring government assistance. The Pew Research Center reports that nonwhite veterans are more likely to experience financial hardships and feel that they haven’t received adequate support from the government compared to their white counterparts. Substance misuse, often used as a coping mechanism, can further complicate the reintegration process.

Given these challenges, there is a clear need for comprehensive support systems that address both the psychological and practical aspects of the transition. Interventions should focus on bolstering mental health, enhancing social support networks, and assisting with employment and financial stability to mitigate the risk of suicide among transitioning veterans.

Impact of Firearm Access on Veteran Suicide Rates

Firearm access is a critical factor in the prevalence of suicide among veterans. Studies indicate that firearms are the most common method used by veterans who die by suicide, with about 71% of male veteran suicide deaths and 43% of female veteran suicide deaths involving firearms, a rate significantly higher than that of nonveterans. This stark contrast underscores the need for effective firearm safety measures and policies tailored to the veteran community.

Secure firearm storage is a key component in suicide prevention strategies. A survey of US veterans revealed that more than half own firearms, and of those, 53% reported storing their guns unsafely. This unsafe storage practice contributes to the ease of access during a suicidal crisis. In response, initiatives like the National Veteran Suicide Prevention Annual Report emphasize promoting secure firearm storage and expanding readily accessible crisis intervention services.

Limiting easy access to guns, particularly for those experiencing suicidal thoughts, is a recommended prevention strategy. This includes reforming policies around firearm purchases on military bases and private firearm restrictions for service members. Independent research groups have advised the Defense Department and other agencies to consider these measures seriously. Such interventions aim to create a safer environment and reduce the potential for impulsive actions that could lead to suicide.

Strategies to Prevent Veteran Suicide

The urgency to prevent veteran suicide has led to the implementation of various strategies and programs, with a focus on a public health approach. The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has established a comprehensive plan through the PREVENTS initiative, which is based on the National Strategy for Preventing Veteran Suicide. This strategy prioritizes integrating and coordinating suicide prevention activities across different sectors and settings to create a unified effort.

Key components of the strategy include the VA’s commitment to a 10% reduction in the veteran suicide rate from 2019 to 2024 and a long-term annual decrease of 3% by 2028. This goal is to be achieved through enhanced programs and community interventions, as outlined in the VA’s progress report on suicide prevention. Additionally, the VA provides mental health services through programs like Coaching Into Care, offering confidential assistance from licensed psychologists and social workers.

Efforts also include financial support for suicide prevention initiatives, such as the Staff Sergeant Parker Gordon Fox Suicide Prevention Grant Program, which received substantial funding for fiscal year 2025. This grant supports community-based projects aimed at reducing veteran suicide rates. Furthermore, the VA emphasizes the importance of support before a crisis occurs, addressing the multifaceted causes of suicide and promoting prevention as a possibility with the right resources and attention.

The Critical Role of Mental Health Services in Veteran Suicide Prevention

The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) recognizes the critical role mental health services play in preventing suicide among veterans. With increasing rates of suicide, particularly among veterans under the age of 45, where it stands as the second leading cause of death, the VA has emphasized the need for comprehensive mental health care. The VA’s recent report indicates a concerning rise in suicide rates in 2021, underscoring the urgency of addressing this issue.

Access to quality mental health services is a cornerstone of the VA’s strategy to mitigate this crisis. The National Strategy for Preventing Veteran Suicide emphasizes not only the provision of these services but also the importance of a whole-of-nation public health approach. This includes increasing the access and utilization of mental health services across a full continuum of care, from early intervention to crisis management.

Furthermore, the VA has initiated programs that provide free emergency suicide prevention care, which served nearly 50,000 veterans in its first year. This, along with mandatory suicide prevention training for VA’s community care partners, as highlighted in the Issue Brief: Mental Health Services and Suicide Prevention, ensures that veterans receive not only immediate support but also ongoing, specialized care tailored to their needs.

It is clear that mental health services are not just a component but a vital lifeline in the prevention of veteran suicide. The VA’s commitment to this cause is evident in its strategic plans and the resources allocated to support veterans’ mental health and well-being.

The Effectiveness of Peer Support Programs in Suicide Prevention

Peer support programs have emerged as a vital component in the multifaceted approach to suicide prevention, particularly among veterans. These programs leverage the shared experiences of individuals to foster a supportive environment that can significantly impact mental health and well-being. A scoping review has characterized the breadth of peer-delivered suicide prevention services, indicating that peers who have a common background or experience with the individual at risk can play crucial roles in suicide prevention efforts.

Research has shown that peer support specialists are not only a valuable addition to the Veterans Health Administration’s suicide prevention efforts but also help fill existing service gaps. The PREVAIL intervention, designed and piloted with non-veterans, is one such peer-based suicide prevention program that has shown promise. Moreover, lived experience peer support programs have been positively associated with improved health outcomes for individuals at risk of suicide. However, there remains an evidence gap in the research regarding their design, implementation, and effectiveness.

Despite these gaps, the recognized benefits of peer support in suicide prevention programs include improved quality of life and better engagement with treatment and recovery processes. The transformative effect of peer support specialists on both individuals and systems highlights the importance of further integrating these programs into comprehensive suicide prevention strategies.

The Critical Role of Crisis Intervention in Veteran Suicide Prevention

Crisis intervention is a pivotal element in the multifaceted approach to preventing suicide among veterans. It encompasses immediate assistance and support services during a mental health crisis, which can be a crucial turning point for individuals at risk of suicide. The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) prioritizes crisis intervention by offering various emergency services, including free emergency suicide prevention care to nearly 50,000 veterans and former service members. This care includes emergency room services, inpatient or crisis residential care for up to 30 days, and outpatient care for up to 90 days, which can be lifesaving.

The VA’s approach aligns with the national goal of reducing suicide rates by 20% by 2025, as outlined in their comprehensive National Strategy for Preventing Veteran Suicide. By providing immediate access to mental health services and readjustment support, crisis intervention programs help bridge the gap during critical moments, offering veterans the support they need to navigate their crises. Expanding readily accessible crisis intervention services is instrumental, as it ensures veterans have immediate access to the help they require without the barriers of cost or location.

Additionally, community-based interventions and the VA’s commitment to hiring community engagement and partnership coordinators aim to strengthen suicide prevention efforts outside the VA system, addressing the needs of veterans in diverse communities. Tailoring suicide prevention strategies to specific demographics, such as women veterans, and adapting interventions during times of increased stress, like the COVID-19 pandemic, are also part of the VA’s dynamic approach to crisis intervention.

Societal Contributions to Veteran Suicide Prevention

Society plays a crucial role in the prevention of veteran suicide by fostering community support and implementing comprehensive public health approaches. According to the 2023 National Veteran Suicide Prevention Annual Report, a whole-of-nation public health approach is essential in addressing this complex issue. This includes integrating and coordinating suicide prevention activities across multiple sectors and settings to create a supportive environment for veterans.

Community interventions, as highlighted by the National Academies of Sciences, emphasize the importance of understanding social determinants that affect veteran suicide rates. Initiatives such as those funded by the VA Office of Rural Health focus on building veteran leadership and networks, particularly in rural areas, to provide holistic support. This approach is crucial as it empowers veterans and leverages community resources for prevention efforts.

Public awareness campaigns and policy changes are also vital. Raising awareness about the challenges veterans face can lead to increased empathy and support from the general public. At the same time, policy changes can ensure that veterans have better access to mental health services and crisis intervention. The role of society is not limited to providing support but also in advocating for and implementing changes that can significantly reduce the risk of suicide among veterans.

Enhancing Public Awareness to Prevent Veteran Suicide

Public awareness is a critical component in the prevention of veteran suicide. Understanding the magnitude and characteristics of this issue can mobilize community support, inform policy development, and encourage at-risk individuals to seek help. The White House’s comprehensive strategy emphasizes the need for a cross-sector, evidence-informed public health approach to reduce military and veteran suicide.

Statistics from the 2023 National Veteran Suicide Prevention Annual Report highlight an alarming rise in veteran suicides, with a significant increase from the previous year, underscoring the urgency of public awareness initiatives. Enhanced public knowledge can lead to earlier detection of warning signs and timely intervention.

Efforts by the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) include disseminating information to better understand the challenges veterans face, particularly in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. The VA also outlines steps veterans can take to access services, such as enrolling in VA healthcare and applying for benefits.

Public awareness campaigns are vital in destigmatizing mental health issues and promoting a culture where seeking help is encouraged and supported. By raising awareness, society can create a supportive environment that addresses the unique struggles of veterans and reduces the risk of suicide.

Impact of Policy Changes on Veteran Suicide Prevention

Policy changes play a crucial role in addressing the alarming rates of suicide among veterans. The 2023 National Veteran Suicide Prevention Annual Report highlights a concerning uptick in veteran suicides, underscoring the need for a comprehensive, multi-faceted approach to prevention. Policy interventions can include enhancing mental health services, improving the transition process from military to civilian life, and ensuring safe firearm storage.

One key area of focus is the improvement of mental health services, as evidenced by the VA’s strategic planning, which integrates operations and evaluations across various administrations. The VA’s recent policy providing free emergency suicide prevention care to nearly 50,000 veterans is a prime example of how policy can directly impact lives.

Furthermore, the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention advocates for culturally relevant care and timely, evidence-based mental health services. They also support policies that promote lethal means safety, an important factor given the role firearms play in veteran suicides. The White House’s strategy for reducing military and veteran suicide includes goals such as enhancing crisis care and facilitating care transitions, which can significantly lower the risk of suicide among veterans.

Policy changes that prioritize the mental health and well-being of veterans, including increased public awareness and the provision of comprehensive support services, are vital to preventing suicide among this at-risk population.

Addiction Treatment for Veterans at The Recovery Village Cherry Hill at Cooper

If you’re a military veteran seeking addiction treatment, The Recovery Village Cherry Hill at Cooper is here to help. We are a part of the VA Community Care Network, and we offer a trauma-informed program designed for veterans and first responders. Contact a Veteran Advocate today to learn more or to get started with treatment. 

Medical Disclaimer: The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with a substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare provider.

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