Veterans of the United States military are twice as likely to commit suicide as other adults in the US population according to a report published by the US Veterans Administration in 2021. Why do our heroes, those who served our nation with honor, decide to end their lives? Mental health professionals can tell us that several factors predispose to taking one’s life. These include neglect, abuse, and bullying during childhood and relationships that include loss, violence, or simply breaking up. A major factor in the veteran population is the incidence of post-traumatic stress disorder. The psychological trauma experienced by veterans can last well beyond their years in service and is a major risk of veteran suicide. Here we look at veteran suicide risk predictors as a first step in understanding the problem and then addressing it.
Risk of Suicide in Veterans with PTSD
Individuals with post-traumatic stress disorder have a roughly four times higher risk of committing suicide than the general population and for just adult men that goes up to five times as likely to take one’s own life. Thus, military veterans have all of the same risks as the general population plus the significantly increased risk of suicide based on the psychological trauma that they experienced during their service years.
Shell Shock, Combat Fatigue, and PTSD
During the trench warfare of the First World War soldiers subjected to constant artillery bombardment, repeated charges against fortified enemy positions, and continual loss of friends and comrades developed a constellation of symptoms then called shell shock. They developed a sense of helplessness and panic, were unable to reason, sleep, or even walk or talk. The state of medical knowledge at the time attributed these symptoms to the physical shock of repeated artillery strikes. Partially this was because in the first reported British cases the same soldiers also were overly sensitive to nose, got dizzy, experienced amnesia, and had tremors. The same symptoms emerged during the Second World War and were called combat stress reaction or combat fatigue. Because the majority of soldiers who developed these symptoms did not have intense exposure to trench warfare and artillery fire (especially in the Second World War), it because clear that the real trauma was psychological. It was not until the Vietnam era and especially during the 21st century and the War on Terror that the lingering after-effects of PTSD and their relationship to suicides because clear.
Lack of Support and Suicide Risk
People who are isolated or who self-isolate tend to get depressed more easily and are at a higher risk of committing suicide. A middle-aged adult male who just got divorced and is medicating his depression with alcohol is a classic example of a heightened risk of suicide. While this scenario may apply to all adults, the part that applies to military veterans is that they have left the support system they had in the military as well as the organizational structure that can be so important for many vets. Those who have not been able to maintain close contacts with their former comrades in arms and who suffer from PTSD as a result of their military service will commonly be at higher risk of taking their lives.
Hope and a Positive Outlook As Preventative Measures for Veteran Suicide
Many veterans experience a profound sense of loss when they leave military service. They leave behind an important support system that may be difficult to replace or be simply irreplaceable. An important factor here is a thing called dispositional gratitude. This is the tendency to notice and appreciate the positive aspects of one’s life. Individuals who are able to maintain this positive approach are about a third less likely to have thoughts of suicide or attempt suicide. The unfortunate part is that many vets found reasons to live and enjoy life in the service of their country and all too often lose those reasons when they leave the service. On these pages of No Fallen Heroes we look at our fallen heroes and emerging solutions to the scourge of veteran suicide. Our sacred goal is to reduce and eliminate veteran suicide so that there will be no fallen heroes.