Suicide Among Veterans: Trends, Risk Factors, & Prevention

If you or a loved one is struggling with addiction, help is available. Speak with a Recovery Advocate by calling (614) 362-1686 now.

Updated 03/06/2024

Key Takeaways

  • Recent data shows a decrease in veteran suicide deaths and rates for 2019 and 2020, but new-onset suicidal ideation rose during the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • Veteran suicide rates were 1.57 to 1.66 times greater than non-veterans between 2017 and 2020, after adjusting for age and sex.
  • Women veterans face a particularly high risk of suicide, with rates increasing by 61% from 2005 to 2017.
  • Key risk factors for veteran suicide include PTSD, major depressive disorder, and alcohol use disorder, often related to military service experiences.
  • Combat exposure is a significant risk factor for veteran suicide, with a dose-response relationship to the intensity of combat-related trauma.
  • PTSD is a prevalent concern among veterans and is strongly associated with increased suicide risk, though it is not a direct predictor.
  • The National Strategy for Preventing Veteran Suicide outlines an integrated approach to prevention, emphasizing coordination across sectors.
  • Community support is pivotal in suicide prevention, with a public health model combining community engagement and clinical interventions.
  • The ripple effect of veteran suicide extends to families and communities, highlighting the need for comprehensive support networks.
  • Community engagement is essential in the VA’s multifaceted approach to suicide prevention, with collaboration between the VA, local organizations, and community members.

Current Trends in Veteran Suicide Rates

The prevalence of suicide among veterans has been a critical concern, with recent data indicating both concerning trends and areas of improvement. According to the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), the 2022 National Veteran Suicide Prevention Annual Report documented a decrease in veteran suicide deaths and rates for 2019 and 2020, continuing a two-decade observation of veteran suicide statistics.

Further insights from the 2023 National Veteran Suicide Prevention Annual Report reveal that despite an overall decline in suicidal thinking, a significant portion of veterans developed new-onset suicidal ideation and suicide planning during the COVID-19 pandemic. This highlights the need for continuous monitoring and targeted support for this vulnerable group.

Moreover, research indicates that veteran suicide rates were 1.57 to 1.66 times greater than non-veterans after adjusting for age and sex differences between 2017 and 2020, as reported by the JAMA Network. This statistic underscores the disproportionate impact of suicide within the veteran community compared to the general population.It is crucial to note that while the overall number of suicide deaths among service members decreased in 2022, according to the Department of Defense, the rates and individual experiences vary, necessitating ongoing prevention efforts and support services. The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention emphasizes the importance of enhancing access to culturally relevant care and promoting safe firearm storage, among other prevention strategies, to address this ongoing issue.

Veteran vs. Non-Veteran Suicide Rates

Recent data reveals a troubling disparity in suicide rates between veterans and non-veterans. According to the 2023 National Veteran Suicide Prevention Annual Report, the suicide rate among veterans was significantly higher than that of the general US population after adjusting for age and sex. In particular, the report indicates that between 2017 and 2020, veteran suicide rates were 1.57 to 1.66 times greater than those of non-veterans.

Moreover, the age- and sex-adjusted suicide rate among veterans increased by 11.6% from 2020 to 2021, while the rate among non-veteran US adults rose by 4.5%, underscoring the elevated risk veterans face. In 2020, the unadjusted suicide rate for veterans was over twice that of the general population, with veterans under the age of 45 being particularly vulnerable. The suicide rate among veterans aged 18-34 was 45.9 per 100,000—nearly three times higher than non-veterans in the same age group.

These statistics not only highlight the critical need for targeted suicide prevention efforts but also raise questions about the underlying factors contributing to this disparity. The RAND Corporation notes that factors such as combat exposure and PTSD may play significant roles in the higher rates of suicide among veterans, necessitating comprehensive and culturally relevant care as part of prevention strategies.

Examining Gender Disparities in Veteran Suicide Rates

Recent studies have highlighted significant gender differences in suicide rates among veterans. Women veterans are particularly at risk, with suicide rates that are substantially higher than their civilian counterparts. Data from the Department of Veterans Affairs shows that from 2005 to 2017, the suicide rate among women veterans increased by 61%, compared to a 43% increase among men veterans. This alarming trend underscores the need for gender-specific approaches to suicide prevention for veterans.

Furthermore, the method of suicide also differs by gender. While firearms are the most common means of suicide among veterans, a higher percentage of men (70.2%) use firearms compared to women (49.8%). However, it is important to note that women veterans are more likely to use firearms than non-veteran women, indicating a potential area for intervention. The National Institutes of Health reports that the firearm suicide rate among veteran women was 281.1% higher than non-veteran women in 2021, with a 14.7% increase in firearm suicides among veteran women from the previous year.

The Department of Defense and the Veterans Affairs are actively working to address these disparities through research and prevention programs. It is essential that these efforts continue to evolve with a focus on understanding and mitigating the unique risks faced by women veterans.

Risk Factors Contributing to Veteran Suicide

Studies indicate that certain risk factors are more prevalent among veterans, contributing to higher rates of suicide within this demographic. Key risk factors include psychiatric disorders strongly linked to suicidal thoughts and behaviors (STBs), such as posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), major depressive disorder, and alcohol use disorder. These conditions are often a result of or exacerbated by experiences unique to military service, such as combat exposure, which can lead to emotion dysregulation and increased stress susceptibility.

Additionally, veterans may have a history of adverse childhood experiences, which have been associated with greater vulnerability to STBs. Loneliness and poor physical health are also identified as robust correlates, particularly among veterans who may feel isolated after leaving the structured environment of the military. During the COVID-19 pandemic, although there was an overall decline in suicide rates among adults, a significant portion of veterans developed new-onset suicidal ideation and planning, underscoring the need for targeted support.

Prevention efforts are crucial and include improving access to culturally relevant care, enhancing crisis intervention services, and promoting safe storage practices for firearms. The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has prioritized suicide prevention in its strategic plans, recognizing the need to engage not only mental health providers but the broader community in these efforts. The National Strategy for Preventing Veteran Suicide outlines these priorities and emphasizes a whole-of-nation approach to mitigating the unique challenges faced by veterans.

Combat Exposure as a Risk Factor for Veteran Suicide

Combat exposure is a significant risk factor for suicide among veterans, with a complex interplay between direct experiences and subsequent mental health conditions like Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Research indicates a multifaceted relationship involving PTSD, religiosity, spirituality, and suicide risk, emphasizing the importance of addressing PTSD and providing religious coping mechanisms in suicide prevention efforts. A dose-response relationship has been observed, suggesting that the more intense or frequent the combat-related trauma, the higher the risk of suicidal behavior, particularly for those wounded multiple times.

Specific combat experiences, such as exposure to killing and atrocities, are associated with a significantly increased risk for suicide-related outcomes. Findings from various studies highlight that the risk of suicide may be related to the severity and type of combat experiences, with some events having more considerable implications for suicide risk than others. Furthermore, combat exposure’s impact on suicide risk may be indirect, mediated through mental health disorders such as PTSD and depression, which are prevalent among veterans.

Given these insights, it is crucial for suicide prevention programs to consider the nuanced effects of combat exposure and to tailor interventions that address the underlying mental health issues veterans face. Support systems, both clinical and community-based, need to account for the complex psychological aftermath of combat exposure to effectively mitigate the heightened risk of suicide among veterans.

The Link Between PTSD and Suicide Among Veterans

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a prevalent and significant concern among US military veterans, with a strong association to increased suicide risk. Studies indicate that veterans with PTSD are more likely to experience suicidal ideation and engage in suicidal behavior. The complex relationship between PTSD and suicide among veterans is influenced by factors such as exposure to combat, traumatic experiences, and the challenges of reintegration into civilian life.

Recent research, including a study from The Rocky Mountain Mental Illness Research, Education and Clinical Center for Veteran Suicide Prevention, highlights that while PTSD is common among veterans, it is not always a direct predictor of suicide. This suggests that other factors, such as substance use or co-occurring mental health conditions, may also play a critical role.

Overall, while PTSD is a significant factor in veteran suicide, it operates within a broader context of mental health challenges and treatment opportunities. Ongoing research and evolving treatment options are essential in addressing the multifaceted nature of veteran suicide risk.

Strategies and Programs for Preventing Veteran Suicide

The prevention of veteran suicide is a critical public health concern addressed through a multitude of strategies and programs. The National Strategy for Preventing Veteran Suicide outlines an integrated approach, emphasizing coordination across sectors and settings. Key elements of this strategy include enhancing crisis care, facilitating care transitions, and improving lethal means safety.

The US Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Suicide Prevention Program (SPP) plays a pivotal role, with suicide prevention coordinators (SPCs) tasked with key responsibilities. The program aims to create a comprehensive support network for veterans at risk. The VA-DoD Clinical Practice Guideline on the Assessment and Management of Patients at Risk for Suicide is another critical component, offering a revised framework for clinical management.

Moreover, the PREVENTS initiative, established by Executive Order 13861, amplifies the public health approach, aiming to end veteran suicide through a unified effort. Community-based efforts are also recognized as crucial, reaching veterans outside the VA system. These strategies are supported by research and legislation aimed at improving access to care for veterans and familiarizing healthcare institutions with the unique health concerns of this population.

Assessing the Effectiveness of VA Suicide Prevention Efforts

The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has implemented a comprehensive strategy to prevent suicide among veterans, which is detailed in various reports and initiatives. A central goal is to integrate and coordinate suicide prevention activities across multiple sectors and settings, aiming for a whole-of-nation, public health approach. The VA has set ambitious targets, including a 10% reduction in veteran suicide rates from 2019 to 2024 and further decreases of 3% annually by 2028. These efforts are supported by enhancements in programs and training focused on community interventions.

Studies utilizing VA electronic health record data have examined associations between suicide attempts and other self-directed violence (SDV) among veterans, particularly in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. Additionally, the VA provides a full continuum of mental health services that are comprehensive and recovery-oriented, addressing issues common among veterans, such as PTSD and substance use disorders. Community-based efforts are also a significant part of the VA’s strategy, with substantial grants being awarded to local organizations for suicide prevention services.

One of the key measures of success for the VA’s suicide prevention policy is the provision of free emergency suicide prevention care, which has assisted nearly 50,000 veterans and former service members in its first year. This policy underscores the VA’s commitment to immediate and accessible support for those at risk of suicide. The National Strategy for Preventing Veteran Suicide and the National Veteran Suicide Prevention Annual Report offer comprehensive insights into these ongoing efforts and their outcomes.

The Crucial Role of Community Support in Preventing Veteran Suicide

Community support plays a pivotal role in suicide prevention among veterans, addressing social, cultural, and economic factors that contribute to suicide risk. The public health approach to suicide prevention emphasizes that everyone has a role in combatting this issue, integrating both clinical and community-based strategies. Research indicates that a full public health model, combining community engagement with clinical interventions, is essential for effective suicide prevention.

Community-based programs, such as mentorship and support groups, are vital in establishing social connectedness for veterans, particularly those at high risk of suicide. Programs like Boulder Crest, which provide opportunities for veterans to enjoy shared experiences and support, are crucial in mitigating the alarming statistics, such as the estimated 18 veteran lives lost to suicide daily. By fostering strong community bonds, veterans can find support before reaching a crisis point.

Moreover, the National Strategy for Preventing Veteran Suicide underscores the importance of community strategies in not only supporting individuals affected by suicide but also in preventing further tragedies. Enhancing community connections through partnerships, as noted by the Department of Veterans Affairs, is an increasingly important strategy in the fight against veteran suicide. Community support, therefore, is not just beneficial but essential in creating a safety net for veterans, providing them with a sense of belonging and access to resources that can be life-saving.

Ripple Effects of Veteran Suicide on Families and Communities

The loss of a veteran to suicide extends far beyond the individual, creating a profound ripple effect that impacts families, friends, and entire communities. The scoping review of the effects of suicide exposure highlights the increasing suicide rates among service members since 2011 and underscores the need for a comprehensive approach to prevention. The aftermath of a veteran’s suicide can lead to a complex web of emotional, social, and economic consequences for those left behind.

Family members often experience intense grief, guilt, and a sense of responsibility, which can lead to mental health struggles of their own. The stigma surrounding suicide can exacerbate feelings of isolation and silence among the bereaved. Communities, especially those with strong military ties, may feel a collective loss and face challenges in providing appropriate support and resources. Programs like those funded by the VA Office of Rural Health, as mentioned in APA’s article, are crucial in fostering veteran leadership and support networks to mitigate these effects.

The 2023 National Veteran Suicide Prevention Annual Report calls for a ‘Whole-of-Nation’ public health approach to veteran suicide prevention, emphasizing the importance of community and culturally relevant care. The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention also advocates for enhanced access to mental health services and suicide prevention strategies tailored specifically for the veteran community.

Navigating Support Services for Families Impacted by Veteran Suicide

When a veteran dies by suicide, the impact on families and friends is profound, and the need for supportive services becomes critical. Recognizing this, various organizations and programs offer assistance to those left behind. The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) provides a comprehensive support network for families, including counseling, mental health services, and guidance on the unique challenges these families face. This support extends to helping families understand and cope with the effects of PTSD and other mental health disorders that veterans may have struggled with.

Non-profit organizations also play a vital role in providing support. They offer counseling, create communities for shared healing, and sometimes provide financial assistance. One example is the services highlighted by ABC News, where organizations help families and friends cope with their loss. These services are crucial in helping families navigate the aftermath of a tragedy.

Additionally, the VA has announced initiatives like the 2024 Equity Action Plan and grants to community-based organizations to enhance support for underserved communities, ensuring that all veterans and their families receive the care and benefits they deserve. This includes $52.5 million in grants for suicide prevention services, which will indirectly support families by providing mental health screenings and emergency services for veterans at risk.

For immediate assistance, the Veterans Crisis Line offers a lifeline for veterans and their families, providing 24/7 access to support through phone, chat, and text. The comprehensive approach to support by these organizations underscores the importance of community and governmental efforts in addressing the needs of families affected by veteran suicide.

Community Engagement in Veteran Suicide Prevention

Community response to veteran suicide is a critical aspect of a multifaceted approach to suicide prevention. The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) emphasizes the importance of community involvement in supporting veterans at risk of suicide. According to a publication by the American Psychological Association, enhancing community connections through research and partnerships is a key strategy in the VA’s approach to suicide prevention. This involves collaboration between the VA, local organizations, and community members to create a supportive network for veterans.

Communities are adapting to the challenge by implementing crisis response planning and other interventions that show promise in reducing suicidal thoughts among veterans with PTSD. These community-driven initiatives complement the public health approach recommended by the National Strategy for Preventing Veteran Suicide, which advocates for comprehensive, evidence-informed strategies.

Despite the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, some studies have indicated a decline in suicide among adults, including veterans. However, there is still a significant portion of veterans who developed new-onset suicidal ideation or planning during the pandemic, underscoring the ongoing need for community support. The community’s role in suicide prevention can range from providing social support to engaging in outreach programs that aim to identify and assist veterans in need.

Addiction Treatment for Veterans at The Recovery Village Columbus 

If you or a loved one are looking for veteran-specific help for opioid addictions, we can help. The Recovery Village Columbus offers comprehensive trauma-informed substance use treatment. As a proud partner of the VA Community Network, we provide a veteran-specific treatment track and work with VA benefits. We also offer EMDR, a revolutionary new therapy to treat post-traumatic stress. Contact a Recovery Advocate today. They’ll guide you through the admissions process and help you navigate your VA benefits or insurance.

Get your life back

Recovery is possible. Begin your journey today

Call Us Now Admissions Check Insurance

What To Expect

When you call our team, you will speak to a Recovery Advocate who will answer any questions and perform a pre-assessment to determine your eligibility for treatment. If eligible, we will create a treatment plan tailored to your specific needs. If The Recovery Village is not the right fit for you or your loved one, we will help refer you to a facility that is. All calls are 100% free and confidential.

All calls are 100% free and confidential.