18 Veterans Commit Suicide Every Day, Report Says

Troubling new data show there are an average of 950 suicide attempts each month by veterans who are receiving some type of treatment from the Veterans Affairs Department.

While any loss of military personnel weakens the U.S. armed forces, the rapid upswing in suicides among service members and veterans during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan threatens to inflict more lasting harm. If military service becomes associated with suicide, will it be possible to recruit bright and promising young men and women at current rates? Photo: Nestor's Blurrylife/Flickr

A veteran commits suicide every 80 minutes, according to a study published Monday. Seven percent of the attempts are successful, and 11 percent of those who don’t succeed on the first attempt try again within nine months.

Military suicides have increased since the start of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to a Center for a New American Security Suicide report. In the fiscal year 2009 alone, 1,868 veterans of these wars have made suicide attempts, according to armytimes.com.

The numbers, which come at a time when VA is strengthening its suicide prevention programs, show about 18 veteran suicides a day, about five by veterans who are receiving VA care.

Access to care appears to be a key factor, officials said, noting that once a veteran is inside the VA care program, screening programs are in place to identify those with problems, and special efforts are made to track those considered at high risk, such as monitoring whether they are keeping appointments.

“America is losing its battle against suicide by veterans and service members,” authors Dr. Margaret C. Harrell and Nancy Berglass concluded. “And as more troops return from deployment, the risk will only grow.”

VA’s suicide hotline has been receiving about 10,000 calls a month from current and former service members. The number is 1-800-273-8255. Service members and veterans should push 1 for veterans’ services.

Faced with the stigma of post-traumatic stress disorder, unemployment rates tipping 12 percent and a loss of the military camaraderie, many veterans report feeling purposeless upon returning home.

Eight-year Marine Corps veteran Jason Christiansen, 35, of St. Paul, is among those veterans who have come close to taking his life. When the financial crisis hit in 2008, he lost his job as a technician at an auto dealer.

“When I got laid off my bills all piled up,” he said. “I couldn’t pay anything, so everything I had: my credit cards, my car loan, everything all went into debt collection.”

“At one point, I was sitting there with a gun in my mouth,” he said.

The epidemic is raging among those who are currently serving too. From 2005 to 2010, approximately one service member committed suicide every 36 hours, the CNAS study revealed.

While the VA mental-health programs have proven to be effective, the authors of the report offered concrete suggestions on how to prevent even more military members and veterans from taking their lives.

For example, the report suggests that the services need to ensure that information about a service member’s mental health well-being is transferred when that individual moves. When a unit commander has significant concerns regarding a departing member, he or she should discuss these issues with the receiving commander.

Congress should establish a federal pre-emption of state licensing such that mental health care can be provided across state lines for those instances in which military service members or family members have an established pre-existing care relationship.

It is also said in the report that the Army should establish a unit cohesion period following deployment.

Moreover, the Army, Navy, Marine Corps and Coast Guard should ensure that investigators inform unit commanders of ongoing investigations, and that investigators work with unit leaders to ensure the safety and well-being of members under investigation.

And Unit leaders should encourage members to complete the PDHA truthfully and should underscore that a truthful answer will allow them to link any future mental health problems requiring treatment to their military service.

“The DOD does not currently take sufficient responsibility for veteran suicide,” the authors said. “Given the potential implications of veteran suicide for the all volunteer force, the DOD should seek to understand which veterans, and how many veterans, are dying by suicide.” [via Huff Post, CNAS and Army Times]

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