Despite claims by VA officials, losing another 6,261 veterans to suicide is not good news.
The latest VA report is out and for two years in a row, the National Veteran Suicide Prevention Annual Report claims recent findings are an “Anchor of Hope.”
Burying another 6,261 veterans who died by their own hands isn’t good enough. It certainly doesn’t constitute “hope.”
We aren’t going to settle; 399 fewer reported suicides in 2019 are certainly better than the 2018 reported suicides. But, I argue it’s not enough.
It’s not enough for the surviving loved ones who mourn the loss of their fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, sons, or daughters.
It’s not enough for the estimated 135 lives affected by every one suicide (meaning 2019 deaths impacted at least 844,000 lives) [Center for Suicide Prevention].
It’s not enough for the children whose parent died by suicide, and are now three times more likely to die by suicide [Johns Hopkins].
It’s not enough given that veterans are 52% more likely to die by suicide than non-veterans.
It’s not enough given the suicide rate gap (veteran v. non-veteran age and sex adjusted suicide rates) in 2001 was 16% (vets were 16% more likely to die by suicide) but has remained above 50% since 2014 (vets remain 1.5 times more likely to die by suicide).
VA estimates we’ve lost more than 120,000 veterans to suicide since the attacks of 9/11. Think about that.
120,000 lives lost.
Those lives would more than fill Michigan Stadium, the largest football stadium in the U.S. or Daytona International Speedway, one of the largest NASCAR tracks in the nation.
What’s worse, a recent study of suicides in modern society indicated suicides could be under-reported by as much as 42% [NIH].
Early findings from Operation Deep Dive, a study developed by America’s Warrior Partnership, conducted by researchers at the University of Alabama, show veteran suicides and non-natural deaths might be under-reported by as much as 27%.
Combined, these studies could mean that 2019 veteran suicides could actually be as high as 7,951 or even as much as 8,750.
Regardless of the accuracy, or lack thereof, the facts that those who have answered our nation’s call have suicide rates 52% higher (or more) than those who have not served and that 18-34-year-old veterans are 1.65 times more likely to die by suicide, remain wholly unacceptable.
Remember, too, that the most recent data in this edition of the VA report is from 2019. I think we can all agree that the world has seen its fair share of trauma between the end of 2019 and the present day.
At Stop Soldier Suicide, we warned about - and have been combating - the long-term effects of Covid-19 on at-risk veterans and service members. Data shows that active duty suicide spiked roughly 20% as Covid ravaged our society; it’s logical to extrapolate an impact on veterans, too.
Preliminary reporting from NIMH and others reflect significant increases in stress, anxiety and depression among veterans -- all risk factors associated with increased suicide risk. Social isolation and increased unemployment have only made the situation more dire.
Now, throw the Afghanistan crisis into the mix. Unprecedented volume of requests for Stop Soldier Suicide’s services in August shows the impact of that situation in the immediate term. The long-term effects - and they are coming - of the withdrawal won’t be fully evident for months.
There’s much, much more work to be done. We can’t afford to get complacent, especially in the face of modest progress.
If we’re going to recruit, train, and deploy young Americans to defend our nation, “against all enemies, foreign, and domestic,” we have to step up our efforts to support their mental health while and after serving.
With 60-70% of veteran suicide occurring by veterans not actively in VHA care, communities and community-based providers need to step up. The VA alone can never solve this problem.
It takes a lot more than hope. It takes laser focus, an actionable plan, and pure guts to make sustained, impactful progress in the fight to save lives. That’s what makes Stop Soldier Suicide different.
If you’re a service member or veteran (or you know one) who’s struggling with recent events, call Stop Solider Suicide, 24/7, at (844) 317-1136.
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