American Vets are Dying by Their Own Hand at an Alarming Rate

The life of a soldier is one of the hardest lives to live. Military members go through grueling training and rigorous self-improvement, pushing their minds and bodies to the limit. Then, they’re shipped out across the world and put into situations beyond the comprehension of everyday people. They see horrible things and have to cope with them by themselves. In wartimes especially, military service members face the daily prospect of death.

For many, there’s four years of this intensity. Then, nothing. They receive their discharge papers and enter normal civilian life again. They get jobs as bankers and construction workers, and start families. Eventually, life normalizes again… unless it doesn’t. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), social anxiety, depression and more don’t fade with time. Untreated, these things can drive a veteran to do the unthinkable.

Statistics about veteran suicide

According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the United States. There are more than 1.4 million suicide attempts each year and the most recent data from 2017 shows just over 47,000 deaths by suicide annually. Looking at the age-adjusted rate, about 14 in 100,000 people end their own lives. And while these numbers are startling, they pale in comparison to figures looking specifically at veterans.

Via figures reported in the 2019 National Veteran Suicide Prevention Annual Report put out by the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs Office of Mental Health and Suicide Prevention, veterans are dying by their own hand at an alarming rate. According to 2017 figures, approximately 6,139 veterans die by suicide each year—an average of 16.8 per day. The age-adjusted rate of suicide per 100,000 veterans is 27.7—almost double that of the general population. It’s alarming to say the least.

Our veterans are committing suicide at horrifying rates. Why? All signs point to a lack of mental health resources, to help veterans process the traumas they’re bringing home with them.

What can we do?

The mental health issues plaguing veterans aren’t the same as those affecting the general population. They’re characterized the same—anxiety, depression, PTSD, etc.—but the catalysts and stimuli just aren’t equal. Most people go through a lifetime without experiencing what a soldier does in just a few years. The trauma it leaves behind cuts deep.

Veterans need a broader level of care and access to resources that go beyond the rest of us. Already we have programs in-place to serve the needs of veterans facing extensive mental trauma:

  • Military sexual trauma (MST) counseling
  • Readjustment counseling
  • Bereavement (grief) counseling
  • Employment counseling
  • Substance abuse assessment and referral

While they’re a good start, they’re not enough. The VA budget needs to continue to increase, with more funding going to upstart programs that better screen veterans for mental scarring and help them enter the right treatment programs as soon as possible. Already, we’re on the right track—the 2020 VA budget is expected to be 9.6% higher than 2019, reaching $220.2B.

Beyond throwing more money at the problem, we as a society can reach out to give our veterans a hand. There are tons of outreach groups to help veterans reintegrate into civilian life, as well as programs that allow veterans to connect with people who can help them overcome the specific challenges they face. Whether they’re going back to school and getting help as an adult learner or finding housing and employment, taking the stress and anxiety out of their transition is something we can all do to improve the lives of veterans.

Many times, simply recognizing the need for companionship and being there is enough. Veterans may not want to talk about their thoughts or feelings—or maybe they do! Having someone they trust and can confide in takes a burden off.

Healing comes from the community

There’s no way to erase the stress and shock that comes from a life in the military. Until we find a way to end the wars and stop the conflict, it’ll continue to fracture the wellbeing of those who have to deal with it. Soldiers aren’t just on the front lines of physical harm—they’re often battling with mental anguish. It manifests in different ways and, if untreated, can culminate in an unthinkable act.

Veteran suicide is an epidemic, but it’s one we can face. It takes a concerted effort by friends, family, community and government. We’re already doing so much, but it’s time to do even more. It’s up to every person to do their part in making sure we protect the people who protect us.

Abhishek Chauhan

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