The incidence of suicide among military veterans is much higher than among those who never served. The incidence of suicide among those with a diagnosis of mental illness is also higher than among those without such a diagnosis. What is the relationship between mental illness, military service, and suicide? Does military service make mental illness worse? Does mental illness cause military service to be more likely to result in suicide or vice versa?
Incidence of Mental Illness Upon Entering Military Service
In theory there should be no mental health issues among those entering military service. This is because some mental health disorders can disqualify a person from joining. Psychotic disorders disqualify a person from serving. So do neurotic, anxiety, mood, somatoform, dissociative, or factitious disorders that commonly require inpatient treatment or more than six months of outpatient care. A rule of thumb is that if the symptoms of a condition keep would keep a person from doing their job they are disqualified from military service. This takes out people with behavioral or personality disorders and may include people with addictive disorders with alcohol or drugs.
All of that having been said, folks still enlist who have mental health disorders. Back in 2014 a survey of U.S. military personnel showed that about one in four military members who were not currently deployed had mental health issues. It turns out two out of three of these folks had the problem before they enlisted.
Don’t Talk and Don’t Get Help
In the military, just like in most of life, if you have mental health problems you don’t talk about them. This prevents these issues from impeding your advancement. This helps prevent your being stigmatized by the perception that people have. During a person’s military career this also means that they do not receive the help that they might need. This applies to those who do not have any traumatic experiences that would cause more trouble. And it certainly applies to those who have the sorts of traumatic experiences that lead to post traumatic stress disorder, chronic depression, and substance abuse in an attempt to self-medicate.
Does Military Service Cause Mental Health Problems?
There are unique challenges and unique risks that go with military service. Long periods away from home and family, frequent exposure to highly stressful situations and even returning back to civilian life all pose unique challenges for those in military service. Physical injuries with lasting consequences compound these issues. Relationship problems stemming from long military service often make pre-existing mental health issues a lot worse. Social exclusion upon reentry into military into civilian life and even homelessness further compound these issues as well. Post traumatic stress disorder is a condition that occurs in the military much more frequently than in civilian life.
Suicide Among Veterans
The National Institute of Mental Health says that 22% of Americans have active mental health issues. Just using the 2014 survey of the military, about 16% of veterans had some sort of mental health issue prior to their service. Because the more severe forms of mental illness would be detected before someone enters military service, we can assume that people going into military service not only have less mental illness but much less severe problems. Nevertheless, the incidence of suicide among veterans is much higher than the population at large. Furthermore, individuals with mental health problems in society at large have a very high risk of suicide. This is the greatest risk pool in the general population. The vast majority of these folks never served in the military. This makes the effect of military service in those with much less severe mental health problems all the worse.
The bottom line is that mental health issues in veterans by themselves are not the reason for so many taking their own lives. The causes stem from their time in service and the experiences that they have.
Coming to Grips With the Past
When a person leaves military service they commonly are no longer in harm’s way. Nevertheless, memories of experiences in the military continue to haunt them. This can be worsened by mental health issues that preceded military service or occurred as a result of it. Either way an important factor in getting better is to confront and come to grips with the past. Here is where we at No Fallen Heroes are excited about the prospects of psychedelic medicines and their ability to help veterans recall and deal with traumatic issues.