Each day about 20 veterans and active-duty service members take their own lives. It's a stubborn number that hasn't changed much since 2005. If the trend continues, 100,000 veterans and troops will have been lost to suicide by the end of this year.
The current rate per day is 20.6 – 3.8 of those lives being lost among active military, including National Guard and Reservists, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs’ latest report on suicides. Those figures, from 2015 - the latest available - represent a slight improvement over 2014's rate of 20.8 suicides a day.
“I don’t want to say this is a positive, but it is a start in the right direction,” said Keita Franklin, the executive director of the VA’s national suicide prevention program, in an interview with KUNC. “At least they’re not rising.”
But they aren’t declining either.
The 20-a-day rate has been relatively consistent since 2008. By that estimate, more than 58,000 veterans and troops have taken their own lives since 2008.
Add roughly 20,000 more suicides for the three years prior to that, when the daily suicide rate was 19 a day (in 2007) and about 18 (in 2005 and 2006). Numbers for 2016, 2017 and 2018 are yet to be tallied. If they hold to 20 a day, by the end of this year the total number of suicides among veterans and troops will be more than 100,000 since 2005.
“One suicide is too many and they’re all tragic,” Franklin said.
The report, simply titled VA National Suicide Data Report, highlights challenges health workers have long faced. Veterans don’t always seek care and mental health issues aren’t always detected - or present - before a suicide. Forty percent of those who took their own lives did not have a mental health diagnosis, Franklin said.
“In some cases they’re struggling with relationship problems, or legal struggles, or financial struggles or employment,” she said. “It’s not always mental health.”
That hasn’t stopped the VA from creating or expanding prevention programs – everything from expanding a crisis line to creating support plans for troops transitioning to civilian life. The website BeThereForVeterans.com, which carries the same hashtag on social media, provides suggestions for what family members and friends can do to help veterans.
“We’re definitely trying to develop interventions across a broad spectrum,” Franklin said.
VA and military health workers have also been trained to be vigilant for the signs of suicide. Yet many veterans aren’t on the early-detection radar because they’re not receiving care. The VA’s report found that the suicide rate is lower for those who recently received VA care versus those who had not.
“So that’s an interesting phenomenon in the report this time,” Franklin said. “If they’re not in VA health care, we see those [suicide] rates rising faster so we think it points to fact that getting into care helps.”
For potentially tens of thousands of veterans, getting VA care is a challenge. KUNC has reported with NPR and Colorado Public Radio on how soldiers were pushed out of the Army for misconduct, meaning their VA and other military benefits could be delayed or denied. Those troops, who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, had mental health disorders and brain injuries. Misbehavior among troops -- and thoughts of self-harm -- can be symptomatic of those kinds of wounds.
In one snapshot of the of the issue, Congress’ investigative arm, the Government Accountability Office, found that 57,000 Army, Air Force, Navy and Marines troops discharged between 2011 and 2015 for misconduct had post-traumatic stress disorder, brain injuries and other conditions, like adjustment, anxiety and depressive disorders. Of these troops, more than 20 percent, or about 13,000 of them, received “other than honorable” discharges, which made them potentially ineligible for veterans benefits, including access to health care for their conditions.
Duane France, a mental health therapist in Colorado Springs and veteran, said stigma -- a fear of being perceived as weak or imbalanced at work and socially -- remains a problem that must be addressed. He adds that veterans need easy access to care if officials are committed to reducing their high rate of suicides.
“Veterans aren’t using the mental health resources at the rate that they possibly should have and that there are barriers to that access,” France said. “Veteran homelessness, veteran suicide, veteran unemployment – all of these things are indicators of an underlying problem, or an underlying challenge to veterans, which is unresolved mental health conditions.”
He added that the VA should be seen as part of a solution that also incorporates active local-level support for veterans.
“Suicide, especially veterans suicide, is a national problem, but it has a local solution and the local solution is the community coming together,” he said.
At a supermarket café in Longmont, Mark Drake, who served 1969-70 in the Vietnam War as an Army medic, had a crisis two decades ago. He felt suicidal and the thoughts wouldn’t go away. It surprised him, but his experiences in health care led him to seek emergency help. He was hospitalized and went into therapy.
“I think the primary thing is: Don’t be afraid to ask for help,” Drake said.
Drake still feels the aftereffects of his time in Vietnam, where he dealt with life and death almost daily. He can be easy to startle and has had struggled with sleeplessness because of nightmares. Now 69 years old, he has a name for it -- post-traumatic stress disorder -- and ways to manage the symptoms. He opened up to his family about the issue and they understand. He’s also got a group of friends – other veterans – to hang out with.
“My buddies are all really frank and we’ve been together for years,” he said. “It goes back to that. We were all cut from the same cloth. You know, all of a sudden our lives changed and we’re standing at attention. Some place we’ve never been before.”
He laughs about it: “Sh*t happens. Why’d it have to happen to me?”
Recreation, he added, helps, too. For him, it’s his handcycle. He started riding it several years ago because as a boy he’d had polio and finally his legs had weakened too much to ride a two-wheeler.
“Oh golly,” Drake said. “Cycling saved my life. I’ve been a cyclist since I was a kid.”
He loves the endorphins he gets from riding and the meditative state he can achieve. The handcycle also activates his sense of humor. With a hearty laugh he said that cycling “allows me to focus on completely one thing: Staying alive on the road.”
Takeaways from the VA’s 2015 suicide report
- The suicide rate increased faster among veterans who had not recently used VA health care than among those who had.
- After adjusting for differences in age, the rate of suicide in 2015 was 2.1 times higher among veterans compared with non-veteran adults.
- In 2015, rates of suicide were highest among younger veterans (ages 18–34) and lowest among older Veterans (ages 55 and older). However, veterans ages 55 and older accounted for 58.1 percent of all veteran suicide deaths in 2015.
Resources for veterans
- The Veterans Crisis Line offers confidential year-round, any-time-of-day support for veterans and their concerned families/friends: 800-273-8255 and press 1. Or chat online at VeteransCrisisLine.net/Chat. Or send a text message to 838255.
Resources for family and friends