A veteran suicide in the USA happens roughly one per hour, day in and day out. In our attempts to reduce and eliminate veteran suicide we look for causes, interventions, and treatments of predisposing factors. Something that can unfortunately be overlooked are the effects of veteran suicide on families. We grieve the death of a loved one who passes away from normal causes after a long life. However, when someone in a family takes their own life, the family dynamics are very different and can even increase the risk of suicide by family members or friends.
What Happens After a Veteran Suicide?
One of the risk factors for suicide is suicide exposure. When someone a person knows, a friend or family, takes their own life it increases the risk of suicide for that person. In the civilian community exposure to suicide commonly leads of prolonged grief, anxiety, depression, a sense of rejection, shame, and even post-traumatic stress disorder. When these are extreme suicidal thoughts and suicide attempts occur. It was not until 2020 that the Department of Veterans Affairs studied this issue.
Active Duty and Veteran Suicide Increasing
For more than a decade suicide rates of those on active duty and of veterans have been increasing. Both rates are far in excess of the civilian population. A lot of research has been done looking at why military active duty and veterans take their own lives. A lot has been done to identify risk factors, increase effective intervention, discover cures and connect those at risk with necessary help. Identifying how the effects of veteran suicide on families is a necessary part of all this.
Suicide Exposure and Suicide Risk
Studies looking at suicide risk after exposure to suicide show that the risk goes up with more than one exposure and exposure to traumatic deaths not related to suicide. Suicidal thoughts and suicide are increased when a sense of guilt is involved. The known suicide risk factors like depression, PTSD, and mental health disorders also increase suicide risk additionally in these individuals. The effects of suicide exposure are not temporary. They can last a lifetime with suicidal thinking and attempts. The closer the relationship the greater the risk of this happening. The strength of this relationship was much greater for veterans who served on active duty as opposed to those who served in the National Guard but never went on active duty.
Family Suicide Risk From Veteran Suicide
The same sorts of factors exist with families of veterans who take their own lives as with service members. Close relationships to the deceased make subsequent symptoms, suicidal ideation, and attempts more likely. So do pre-existing mental health issues in the individuals involved. More exposures to suicide increase the mental health fallout. To the extent that a family member feels responsible or guilty for the death of a loved one this increases the likelihood of long term mental health issues, suicidal thoughts, and attempts.
The Pre-existing Family Situation Is Important
There are veteran suicides where the predisposing factors all have to do with the individual. Veterans in combat situations who end up with PTSD, depression, or substance abuse disorders may be predisposed to end their own lives no matter what their family situation. And there are veterans who come out of the service, are physically and emotionally isolated or living in dysfunctional families. In the situation where the family is more or less emotionally healthy the emotional fallout includes grief and a sense of responsibility. “How could we not have known? We would have done something if we had only known.”
When a veteran lived in a dysfunctional family or other social situation the fallout can be much more complicated. Many times family members in a dysfunctional family make the veterans suicide all about themselves and their past relationship with the deceased. Paradoxically, this may have a protective effect on the otherwise-dysfunctional family member. They will not feel guilty or responsible but will rather pull the deceased suicide into their own private scheme of rationalizing the world around them. They will typically not feel bad but more often angry that somehow the person’s suicide was done to hurt then personally or displace them as the center of attention in their personal universe.
Dealing With a Suicide in the Family Is Important
The bottom line is that it is important to deal with suicide in the family by a veteran or anyone. Issues that are not dealt with can linger for a lifetime and even lead to suicidal thinking and attempts by those near and dear to the deceased. Simply talking about what happened is important. Many times professional counseling is useful for putting things in context and preventing long term mental health issues.