Veterans, Society and Suicide

Veterans, Society and Suicide
U.S. Army photo by SFC Michel Sauret
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Each single day in America, as men and women go to and from work, pick up the kids, walk dogs, down a beer and prepare for the next day, about 7,196 other Americans will die. The majority will succumb to heart disease (1,737); cancer will claim 1,632; and accidents, 401; Alzheimer’s disease will overcome 303 individuals; and diabetes 218.  Notably, 121 Americans will deliberately kill themselves.

In 2017, among the seven thousand Americans who will die each day, death will visit 362 men and women who have the distinction of having served in World War II. And while few Americans know that 362 WWII vets are dying every day, they seem to think they do know that there is a “veteran suicide epidemic” in which young veterans, having served in Iraq and Afghanistan, return suffering from PTSD and other mental disorders and kill themselves on the order of 20 every day.

Veteran suicide is, of course, a real and terrible thing. It’s certainly indisputable that the number and rate of suicides among both former and active-duty service members has grown steadily over the past 16 years of the War on Terror, a fact that is especially worth pausing over, considering that suicide rates among troops have been historically lower during previous conflicts and that traditionally those in the military have been less likely to kill themselves than their civilian peers in either war or peace. But handfuls of  recent studies, published in JAMA Psychiatry and elsewhere, reveal that the majority of veterans who committed suicide in the past decade weren’t those veterans who had spent much if any time in Iraq and Afghanistan, weren’t those who had been in combat, (only 10 percent of service members have seen actual combat in these conflicts), and weren’t typically 20-somethings. 

According to the VA’s latest, most extensive report of veteran suicide, in 2014 veterans accounted for 18 percent of all adult U.S. deaths from suicide, a four-percentage point decrease from 2010. Older veterans aged 50 and over made up about two-thirds of all veteran deaths by suicide, 65 percent. Even so, there continue to be worrying trends of the rates of suicide, and the risk for suicide, increasing significantly among young veterans, especially young female veterans.

But in this, veterans continue to mirror the society they came out of, are a part of, and are returning to. According to data from the Centers for Disease Control, between 1999 and 2014, suicide in the U.S. rose dramatically (24 percent) for both men and women in every age bracket up to age 75. The rate among teenage girls (10-14) tripled over that same period.  The age-adjusted rate for males, however, was more than three times that for females.  By age group, the highest rates and largest rate of suicide increase was among persons aged 35-64, leading Nobel Prize winning Princeton economist Angus Deaton recently to link the rise in deaths by suicide with the increase in deaths from drugs and alcohol abuse among white, predominantly male Americans under the phenomenon of “deaths of despair.”

Attempts at suicide are also increasing, with young adults aged 21-34 most likely to attempt it, but middle-aged adults (45-64) to finalize their attempt. Common health risk factors among all age groups were substance abuse, depression, and other mental health disorders. Between 2005 and 2014, a study found that the share of 12-20 year-olds who suffered major depression within the last year increased by 37 percent. Meanwhile, reported loneliness among U.S. adults has increased from 20 percent to 40 percent since the 1980s. Professor and psychiatrist Aaron Kheriaty noted this recently, in arguing that rising rates of suicide, drug abuse, and depression can be traced to increased social fragmentation.

Veterans are a part of these demographics, reflecting them in a heightened degree in part because the military is overwhelmingly composed of young males. But the social fragmentation hits veterans as a group especially hard, as Sebastian Junger argued last summer in Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging. If family is the initial society in which we gain social identity and security—the narrative of who we are and how we go about our life—and the military unit is the intense tribal equivalent, then the sense of extreme alienation some veterans feel on transitioning back into the civilian world is a difference of degrees from the individual who’s lost the narrative of his life due to weak, maybe nonexistent social connections.

But we only magnify that sense of alienation with a public narrative that sees veterans as an exotic “tribe apart.” We are “increasingly obsessed with the state of [veterans] psychological health,” writes former Army combat medic Adam Linehan, a fact reflected in everything from the Hollywood versions of the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts to advocacy groups to the media. And when it comes to suicide, media accounts emphasize veteran suicides much more frequently than civilian suicides, dwelling on the mode of death, and equating the suicide to a combat fatality complete with its own heroics.

Social scientists talk about suicide contagion or the “Werther effect." (from Goethe’s novel about a suicidal Werther, whose publication was followed by a spate of copycat suicides among young men), and they have measurable evidence that suicidal behavior tends to spread person to person through social networks, with effects reaching to three degrees of separation at least. This September, researchers identified the same phenomenon among military members, noting that small military units seemed to have enhanced vulnerability on this score. The strong connections forged by means of the unit mean that each soldier is keenly aware when a fellow soldier has witnessed or been involved in a traumatic event involving wounding or death. Researchers have also found that soldiers who witnessed their peer get wounded or killed, who were unable to help, were especially at risk for suicide ideation and attempts. It stands to reason that the same dynamic comes into play once those soldiers have become veterans and become separated by time and distance, but nevertheless “see” a fellow unit member take their life through traditional or social media outlets.

Narratives matter. The fragile, “broken veteran” narrative is a powerful narrative because there are some veterans who do experience severe depression after military life, who do become socially marooned, who do take their own life. But foisting that ready-made identity upon any person who once wore the uniform, and who might be searching for a new, post-service identity, is as counterproductive as pretending that mental health disorders and suicidal veterans do not exist. Instead, we are desperately in need of perspective, to gain some balance in our public discourse.

Suicide is a societal problem that a military drawn from and returning to that society will not escape. Yet despite the growing rates of suicide within American society as a whole, it remains a relatively rare event, making it notoriously tricky for epidemiologists and others to make official pronouncements about because of all the caveats in their studies. This only emphasizes the grave disservice we do to those who have served if we constantly imply that they are inevitably broken by their time in the military; and, more gravely, by such a narrative, give a perverse internal legitimacy to those in need of help but who choose instead to take their own life.


Rebecca Burgess manages the Program on American Citizenship at the American Enterprise Institute

*If you’re thinking about suicide, are worried about a friend or loved one, the Lifeline network is available 24/7 across the United States. Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (800-273-8255) to reach a trained counselor. Use that same number and press “1” to reach the Veterans Crisis Line.

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