Suicide among US military veterans is at an all time high. Data from the Veterans Administration puts suicides among veterans at 6,000 to 7,000 a year or as many as 25 a day and more than one an hour. However, no one was counting drug overdoses in the numbers and that addition brings the number of suicides by veterans closer to 40 a day. In trying to get a handle on the problem it is useful to consider the steps leading to veteran suicide. What are the factors that predispose to suicide and how does a veteran progress from having these risks to suicidal ideation (thinking about suicide) and the act?
Factors That Predispose to Suicide in Veterans
The typical veteran prone to suicide is a white male, older, with physical problems, depression, alcoholism, and minimal psychosocial support. Male gender, minimal social environmental support such as being unmarried or even homeless, psychiatric and/or medical conditions such as PTSD and depression that are associated with suicide, and both availability as well as ability to use firearms are all significant risk factors. Factors unique to the Veterans Administration system such as historical reliance on inpatient care have also hampered efforts to deal with veteran suicide. Recent military discharge and difficulty reintegrating into civilian society, getting a job, and maintaining family and social connections are all risk factors as well.
How Does A Veteran Go from Suicide Risk Factors to Suicidal Thinking?
Those who serve in the US military are taught and trained to be tough and resourceful. It takes a lot to wear them down to the point where one considers ending their life. Unfortunately, military life and especially combat can cause problems like long term depression, traumatic brain syndrome, and post-traumatic stress disorder that endure for years or even a lifetime after the person exits the military. Military life can be very destructive of relationships and especially marriages. Thus a service member who suffers from a suicide-predisposing factor such as PTSD may also struggle with a failing marriage or divorce and social isolation. These things having been said not every divorced veteran with PTSD ends their life. What leads to suicidal thinking is a stressful event in the veteran’s life that tips the scales.
Lack of Sleep Preceding Suicide
Something that came to light a few years ago was the fact that veterans who found it difficult to sleep were more likely than others to progress to suicide. Research indicates that nightmares as well as insomnia are associated with suicidal thought and behavior in those veterans with predisposing risk factors. A sad fact is that veterans with drug and alcohol abuse problems frequently “self-medicate” in order to sleep, reduce anxiety, and escape from troubling thoughts. This adds another risk factor for suicide.
Events That Lead to Suicidal Thinking
Veterans carry the ability to cope with life’s difficulties with them from their military experience. Thus thinking of suicide in the face of difficulty is rare. But, when continued efforts to find work, keep a marriage together, cope with PTSD flashbacks, work though health issues such as traumatic brain syndrome, or emerge from disabling depression fail repeatedly it make take just a small extra stressor to tip the scales and start the veteran thinking about ending it all. At the point the availability of friends, family, or a professional to talk to is critical. When any of use thinks repeatedly about something it becomes a habit and so does suicidal thinking. Breaking the self-reinforcing cycle of suicidal thought requires the availability of help and the willingness to seek it. This is a point at which new therapies like psychedelic medicines can break the cycle by alleviating depression and the recurring trauma of PTSD.
Preventing Suicide in Veterans
When suicide prevention is portrayed in the media the heroic fireman is up on the roof convincing the guy not to jump. These situations do happen but to eliminate veteran suicide efforts need to start long before that sort of critical situation if for no other reason than many suicides take place in private with no immediate opportunity to intervene. At No Fallen Heroes we are dedicated to reducing and eliminating veteran suicide. This effort starts with raising awareness and then working to improve the factors such as social isolation, drug and alcohol abuse, PTSD, depression, traumatic brain disorder, social isolation and the rest that are the root causes. As we noted, a bright star on the horizon is the emergence of psychedelic medicines as effective treatments for depression and PTSD.