According to the 2022 NATIONAL VETERAN SUICIDE PREVENTION ANNUAL REPORT published in September of 2022 the average number of veteran suicides per day in 2020 was 16.8, up from 16.4 in 2001 and down from 18.6 per day in 2018. The total number of documented veteran suicides in 2020 was 6,146 compared to 6.001 in 2001 and 6,796 in 2018. The total number of veterans was 25.7 million in 2001 and the veteran total in 2020 was 19.4 million. Thus the rate of suicide in the veteran community is not only unacceptably high but rose substantially during the years of the War on Terror. At No Fallen Heroes we are dedicated to the reduction and elimination of veteran suicides. An important part of this effort to understand the status of veteran suicide in America is to get a handle on just how many veterans commit suicide each year, the risk factors driving this high rate of suicides, and what treatment options are available to stem the tide of this wave of unnecessary deaths.
How Accurate Are Veteran Suicide Numbers?
When a person dies their death is reported at county and state levels. This information does not necessary get to a national level or to the Veterans Administration that compiles reports. When a veteran takes his or her life that veteran may take steps to disguise the cause of death. While using a firearm to commit suicide makes the intent clear, failing to take necessary medications, use of drugs with the intent of self-harm, seemingly accidental deaths, and overdosing on things like heart medications can make the intent as well as the cause of death unclear. On a local level the country coroner may choose not to call a death a suicide because of the stigma of taking one’s own life, especially in a smaller community. As such there is very likely underreporting of suicides in the veteran community. Estimates by those who have studied this issue put the excess number of deaths over the VA figures anywhere from a third higher (25 a day in 2020) to more than twice as many (40 suicides by veterans a day). The exact figures may never be known but it is clear that the number of American heroes who serve the nation and then take their own lives is unacceptable.
Risk Factors Identification for Suicide Prevention
Veterans do not go around announcing to the world in so many words that they intend to commit suicide. However there are factors that clearly increase the risk of veteran suicide. These include depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain syndrome, substance abuse, social isolation, and recent discharge from military service all increase the risk of a veteran taking their own life. Programs that keep in contact with veterans and especially those with known risk factors are important in getting help to vets in need. Programs that help newly discharged veterans find work, maintain a stable home life, and deal with problems that have followed them into civilian life are critical for prevention of suicide.
New Treatments to Prevent Veteran Suicide
There is no treatment or medicine to prevent veteran suicide. But there are treatments and medicines to help veterans with depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and substance abuse. Treating these conditions has been shown to be effective in providing relief of immediate symptoms and, in turn, reducing the incidence of suicide among both veterans and those in the general population. At No Fallen Heroes we are especially excited about the prospects of psychedelic medicines in the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, and substance abuse. We are not talking about recreational use of street drugs in uncontrolled settings like loud rock concerts. Rather we are referring to the use of psychedelics like MDMA and psilocybin as adjunctions to professional psychotherapy. All too often a veteran leaves the service but retains painful memories of stressful events. These memories become so engrained and threatening that even trying to recall them is frightening and painful. Successful treatment typically requires bringing these memories to the fore and evaluating them in the context of the here and now. Here is where psychedelics come into the picture. With just a dose of two of pharmaceutical grade psychedelics a veteran is able to recall past trauma without being overwhelmed, work through painful issues, and put their fears, depression, and despair behind them. Controlled research studies have shown that these drugs when used appropriately and in tandem with professional counseling provide relief for years without the need for continual dosing as is the case with standard antidepressants. It is our hope and prayer that these medicines pass through FDA trials and become available to the wider veteran community in order to reduce the risk factors that lead to veteran suicide.