How Suicide Affects Veterans

Published On: May 2, 2023|Categories: Depression, PTSD, Veteran Suicide|
Upset young woman in camouflage clothes sits on the floor in a bright room near the sofa

In 2020, the suicide rate for veterans was 57.3 percent greater than non-veterans, according to  Veterans Affairs. The VA also reports that there were 6,146 veteran suicides in 2020, averaging nearly 17 per day, though this is a decrease from 2019. In both male and female veterans ages 18-34, suicides increased from 2019-2020, though they decreased during this same time period in veterans of other groups.

Studies also show that:

Veterans are uniquely affected by suicide. When veterans leave the service and return to civilian life, they are often returning home with physical, behavioral and/or mental health complications such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), physical injury and traumatic brain injury (TBI) or are likely to develop other complications or comorbidities, including chronic pain and depression. 

Injury and Chronic Pain

Pew Research found that one of out every ten veterans alive today was physically injured during their military service, approximately 75 percent of those injuries were sustained in combat and 9% of veterans report living with severe pain. Vets who do not receive early care intervention often manage their severe pain on their own without a support system in place, which can be complicated by the often-difficult transition to life after service, resulting in substance use for pain and grief management.

While prescriptions for opioids for pain management in the veteran population have decreased, opioid overdoses in vets increased 53 percent from 2010 to 2019 and approximately 10 percent of veteran admissions to substance use treatment centers were for heroin and six percent were for cocaine use. The VA also reports that veterans taking opioid pain relievers were twice as likely to die by suicide.

Veterans who had moderate to severe pain over the course of a year experienced an increased risk of a suicide attempt, even after considering other factors, and those with higher pain intensity had lower survival rates than those who had mild pain or no pain at all.

Depression and PTSD

Although some studies at the VA have found veterans do not have significantly more depression than non-veterans, other research says that 15 percent of 9/11 veterans are diagnosed with depression post-deployment. The lack of comprehensive research on depression within the veteran population as a singular disorder is likely due to most research focusing on post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury, both of which can cause depression, present depression-like symptoms or mask clinical depression with other, more obvious symptoms.

A study published in JAMA found that suicide rates were highest for veterans during the first year of post-deployment, stating that, “after transition, veterans can face challenges in a variety of areas, including employment, finances, mental health, access to health care, and social support.” Another study out of Johns Hopkins states that nearly 60 percent of military personnel who experience mental health problems do not seek treatment and, according to the VA, less than 50 percent of returning veterans in need of mental healthcare seek treatment.

The Cleveland Clinic found that screening positive for PTSD and depression in addition to having psychosocial difficulties, such as stressors post-deployment, were associated with suicidal ideation. Findings also suggest that co-occurring PTSD and depression increase the risk of suicidal ideation and thoughts of suicide more than either diagnosis alone.

In veterans who have a major depressive disorder and do seek treatment, it’s been found that remission rates are high, with unsuccessfully treated depression and major depressive disorder increasing the risk of suicide and substance use.

Getting Help 

The Pyramid Military Therapy and Recovery Program is specifically designed to treat the unique struggles that veterans face. Our veteran-focused program treats substance use disorders and co-occurring mental health disorders while helping our clients build the social support they need to reach and sustain recovery.

Learn more about our program.

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