It’s only rarely talked about, but veteran suicide is a growing problem in this country. It also can be better addressed with greater public awareness. We’ll provide a more in-depth look at the issue, both past and present, as well as some preliminary tips for what can be done to help the men, women, and families who are most affected…
From Shell Shock to PTSD: The Silent Epidemic of Mental Illness in Veterans
During World War I, British military doctors reported soldiers suffering from “shell shock.” It was a mental illness that doctors characterized by loss of smell, vision, taste, and memory. Doctors also noted that most shell-shocked patients were in the immediate vicinity of shells that exploded. Treating symptoms of shell shock and “hysteria” involved sending soldiers to sanitariums to receive “faradization.” A therapeutic application of short-duration electric current, faradization primarily relieved the tremors, severe muscle contractions, and rigid posturing that we now often recognize as symptoms of catatonic schizophrenia.
Post-World War II saw the term “shell shock” replaced by the term “battle fatigue.” During the years 1945-1960, when Freudian psychoanalysis was the standard mental health treatment, “repressed” feelings of hostility and infantile anxiety (“neurosis“) were a common diagnosis for returning soldiers. In fact, psychologists at the time did not think the war caused neurosis. Instead, they blamed battle fatigue on the theory that soldiers were already neurotic before they went to war.
Vietnam war veterans returning home in the 1970s were not only neglected by the mental health profession at that time but also had to face an American society that was often hostile to them. It wasn’t until 1980 that post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) was officially recognized as a real psychological disorder. In 1983, the U.S. Veterans Administration conducted a study on how prevalent PTSD was among Vietnam veterans, the first of its kind. The “National Vietnam Veterans Readjustment Study” revealed that at least 15 percent of vets reported symptoms of PTSD.
State of the Veteran Suicide Crisis Today
Since 1960, the U.S. has sent soldiers overseas to fight in four major conflicts: Vietnam (1965 -1975), Grenada (1983), Gulf War (1990-1991), and Afghanistan (2001-2021). Unverified claims of between 50,000 and 100,000 Vietnam vets taking their own lives between 1980 and 1990 did increase a growing recognition in society of the plight of mentally ill veterans. An older report published by the Veterans Administration stated that between 2001 and 2014, the number of veterans committing suicide rose above 20 per day.
The most recent veteran suicide statistics are found in the National Veteran Suicide Prevention Annual Report issued by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). The report includes the following statistics:
- Approximately 17 U.S. vets take their own lives each day—in contrast to one suicide daily in the general population.
- Suicide rates among active-duty U.S. personnel are nearly equal to rates among non-military U.S. citizens. However, the report states that both rates are increasing.
- Suicide rates for female U.S. troops were 2.2 times greater than rates for women not in the military
- In 2020, 580 active-duty military service personnel died by suicide. This was a statistically significant increase from previous years going back to 2015.
- Within three years of being discharged from the military is the time frame in which veterans are more likely to commit suicide--33 percent for non-deployed personnel and 29 percent for deployed personnel.
According to the division head of the Psychological Health Center of Excellence Navy Captain Carrie Kennedy, “there is an increased risk of mental health problems during the first three or four months after an individual is discharged from the military.” Transitioning from the rigorous, exacting lifestyle of a Marine or Army private to the much less structured civilian lifestyle is often unsettling and difficult to adjust to. This is especially true of those who must cope with anxiety, nightmares, flashbacks, and other symptoms of PTSD.
What Factors Increase a Veteran’s Risk for Suicide?
A combat veteran is any GI who directly experiences defensive or offensive military action with adversaries in a foreign country. This military action includes hand-to-hand combat, gun battles, bombings, air assaults, and all other events associated with war. Combat veterans are more likely to carry out thoughts of suicide due to these risk factors:
- Undiagnosed PTSD
- Resistance to seeking help from physicians or counselors
- Coping with guilt associated with one or more combat experiences (for example, witnessing friends being shot by the enemy and feeling guilty for coming home alive)
- Having a previous history of trauma (childhood neglect or abuse)
- Being on a long deployment and returning home to find major changes in their life (spousal separation, death of parent, etc.)
- Suffering head trauma while in combat; traumatic brain injuries (TBIs) may not present serious symptoms for weeks or even months after the trauma
- Returning home with a permanent physical injury
- Being male
- Having or developing an alcohol abuse disorder
- Having easy access to firearms
While certain factors can’t be modified, such as past history, demographic, and family history, many other factors can be modified and addressed to help a veteran cope with PTSD, substance abuse, and feelings of alienation and guilt.
What Can Be Done to Stop Veteran Suicide?
Established shortly after the U.S. entered World War II, the United Service Organizations (USO) entertained troops overseas and kept Americans involved in socially supporting military personnel. Although the USO dissolved in 1947, it was later restored when the Korean War began in 1950.
Today, the USO has centers all over the world that offer programs for making it easier to contact family and friends back home. USO centers provide computers, Wi-Fi access, and international calling services to military personnel for free. In addition, USO Warrior Centers located in Fort Belvoir, VA, Bethesda, MD, and Landstuhl, Germany are designed to assist service members suffering from suicide ideation, PTSD, and physical injuries. USO Warrior Centers offer communal kitchens, outdoor gardens, and counseling-type programs to help troops dealing with the physical and mental trauma of being deployed.
The Veterans Crisis Line is operated by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and provides 24/7 access to crisis intervention services for active-duty service members, veterans, national guard members, and families of veterans or current service members. There are three ways a person can contact representatives at the Veterans Crisis Line–via online chat, text messages, or phone calls. All chats, texts, and phone conversations remain confidential and callers do not need to give their names when talking to a counselor.
If you or someone you know is a veteran who may be experiencing suicidal thoughts, call the Veterans Crisis Line immediately; or, call “911” or go to your nearest emergency room.
For information about our specialized inpatient treatment program for first responders, including veterans, call FHE today.