Suicide is a public health issues affecting individuals from all spheres of life, irrespective of their enlistment in military services. Despite being a complex multimodal issue, suicide is preventable. However, the existing rates of veteran suicides within the American nation sketch an increasingly grim portrait of the administration’s failure to address the risk factors associated with suicidal behavior. Having performed an extensive research investigating the contemporary trends of veteran suicide in the United States, I have ascertained that much can be done to address this issue and ameliorate veterans’ quality of life.
Simply publishing multiple reports elaborating veteran suicide rates does not embody the ideal solution. Rather, the implementation of an evidence-based approach is warranted. It remains imperative that military culture and experiences be integrated with social and health outcomes, following personnel’s honorable or less-than-honorable military discharge.
Several military members and veterans struggle on their own for the fear of appearing weak to their families, friends, and co-workers. These individuals remain vulnerable to experiencing numerous psychological issues, such as anxiety, stress, and depression, which are often borne out of socioeconomic concerns.
Others may yet feel a disconnect with society, especially their loved ones, owing to lack of commutable military experiences, and aloofness from civilian life. These experiences culminate in relationship issues, and cultivate an environment that encourage suicidal behavior. Owing to recent substantial increase in suicidal behavior among young military veterans, the contemporary state-of-affairs pertaining to veteran lives has been characterized as “a national emergency” (Durkin, 2018). This points to a dire need for a stronger outreach to help veterans and active duty military personnel.
The presented article will attempt to shed light on the differences inherent in civilian and military lives, and propose possible solutions for bridging the military-life and veteran-life gaps.
Death resulting from suicide is a tragedy has shattering effects on bereaved families and friends. Out of 42,000 individuals who commit suicide in the United States, 18 percent of them are veterans (Durkin, 2018). This has prompted governmental intervention that has seen billions of dollars in financial aid and countless hours of workforce being spent in efforts dedicated towards helping war veterans and their families. However, as suggested by an accumulating body of empirical data, the current Department of Veteran Affairs (VA) psychiatric disability and rehabilitation policies have fallen short of addressing this issue.
United States veterans are prone to experiencing mental health afflictions, post-traumatic stress disorder, substance abuse disorders, and traumatic brain injury. This vulnerability has nurtured an existing trend of suicidal behavior, especially pronounced among young veterans, with 18-22 veterans committing suicide daily (Olenick, Flowers & Diaz, 2015). Military members choose to risk their own lives for serving their county, which often demands sacrifice of familial relationships. Hence, it remains pertinent that enhanced efforts be dedicated towards addressing existing suicidal risk factors for ameliorating the veterans’ overall quality of life.
The risk factors associated with suicidal behavior amongst U.S. military veterans are essentially four-fold. Firstly, existing social stigmas and barriers related to care seeking behavior in the military culture often prohibit veterans from seeking and accessing mental health care services. Secondly, barriers to accessing mental health care services, such as requirement for having an honorable or general discharge for receiving benefits, can complicate existing psychological afflictions that could have otherwise been catered to. Thirdly, a sense of isolation or loneliness resulting from social disconnectedness owing to military personnel’s persistent exposure to traumatic events during multiple deployments, which disrupts their relationships with family members and friends. Lastly, easy access to lethal means, such as firearms, or poison, can facilitate successful suicide attempts.
Despite the availability of numerous suicide prevention measures and means, there exists a dire shortage of effective channels for accessing the same, as well as an abundance of sociocultural factors that restrict their availability. This is especially true for American veterans who often refrain from availing needed care even when they exhibit symptoms of psychological health disorders. This is often due to mental health stigma, surrounding help seeking behavior, by which veterans internalize a stigmatized identity, grounded in military subculture, about themselves or others with psychological afflictions. However, doing so does not negate the negative outcomes associated with war and military service experiences.
Most veterans are diagnosed with one or more mental health disorders, such as depression, alcohol abuse, manic-depressive disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), all of which contribute towards suicidal ideation and behavior (Olenick, Flowers, & Diaz, 2015). Hence, there exists a dire need for screening and assessing suicide attempts, for promoting effective intervention efforts. On the other hand, those seeking help from the health service centers often fail to receive adequate and timely interventions.
The Veteran Health Administration currently caters to the need of approximately 9.6 million war veterans with more than 270,000 workers in its employment. The primary criterion for a veteran to avail VA medical benefits is to be honorably discharged or released with some exceptions pertaining to discharge for reason of hardship, early discharge, or discharge owing to a disability incurred in the line of duty. There is no current existence of services to those within the military services which may indicate as to what constitutes less-than-honorable discharge. Returning war veterans have often been found to exhibit behavior which earns them less-than-honorable discharges, which further limits their access to care that could have otherwise helped them modify that behavior (‘Removing Barriers to Mental Health Services for Veterans’, 2014). Furthermore, under the contemporary culture of VA policies, lack of provider appointment slots has emerged as the primary barrier to access of healthcare facilities for veterans.
There exists an acute shortage of doctors within the VA, especially in primary care, which coupled with an ever-increasing population of war veterans presents a grave challenge (‘Removing Barriers to Mental Health Services for Veterans’, 2014). This lack of availability of mental health care services and ineffective VA policies can be identified as a significant contributor to the increasing rates of veteran suicides. Furthermore, existing suicide prevention policies, measures, and interventions often fail to take into account the sociocultural imperatives, such as military subculture, and social disconnectedness, which mediate suicidal behavior.
The American military subculture nurtures a sense of belonging and community that significantly complicates veterans’ transition into civilian life. Furthermore, the vulnerability to mental health issues often becomes a barrier in social reintegration and employment. Following their discharge, veterans may perceive themselves as being a burden to their community, and develop a low sense of belonging. Hence, there exists a need to institute effective social support, channeled via family members and friends, which can facilitate transition from military to civilian life. This social and psychological support would enable reintegration of veterans, and help identify suicidal behaviors.
Well coached family members can motivate veterans into living productive lives post-deployment. Existing data indicates that strengthening intimate partner relationships can contribute significantly towards overall suicide prevention strategies (Maury, 2014). Such initiative accords cognizance in relation to suicide warning signs, and guidance pertaining to response strategies upon encountering partner’s suicide intent. In some instances, social behaviors of a veteran could deviate from those of civilians. Hence, partners to such individuals need to be trained to cope with such relationship-related stress. Absent social connectedness, the likelihood of veterans’ engaging in suicidal ideation and behavior becomes significantly pronounced.
Another risk factor associated with suicidal behavior amongst American veterans is the availability of lethal means. Existing evidence indicates that firearm ownership is positively correlated with suicidal risk. In a study investigating the differences in suicidal behavior between rural and urban veterans, rural veterans were found to be at a 20 percent higher risk, with one of the major contributing factors being increased access to lethal means, namely firearms (Billera, 2016). Moreover, veterans’ ability to enact lethal self- harm further complicates such concerns.
Even with the emphasis on gun safety and respect for weapons, their ability to use firearms for self-harm persists. Firearm are more lethal than other suicide means, with over 85 percent of such attempts resulting in a fatal outcome (Billera, 2016). Most of the reported suicide cases among military personnel and veterans involved the use of guns. About a quarter of younger veterans who survived suicide attempt had spent less than five minutes contemplating suicide. Limiting access to, and safe storage of firearms will lower the risks of impulsive suicide acts. A potential measure for addressing such concerns could also constitute helping veterans avail suitable career opportunities that capitalize upon their prior military experiences.
Career-related programs would be beneficial for veterans who can no longer serve in the military. Over their military careers, these individuals develop the skills and expertise required for a specific job. Once out of service, they could seek employment opportunities that restore their identity and financial position, such as security consultancy, and risk management. Helping them recover after a long period of trauma and difficulty rescues them from psychological and financial struggles.
Upon returning from deployment, some veterans integrate back to the community well. However, others do not. They require assimilation structures for reordering their careers, families, and finances. It remains crucial that military authorities provide ample time for veterans’ out-processing. This transitional period would allow veterans to process through traumatic experiences, and facilitate their healing process. During this period, veterans can form peer groups for recounting personal stories, relating experiences, and sharing concern over reintegration into civilian life. To conclude, ignoring the plight of those who sacrifice their sense of identity for serving the nation constitutes a great disservice to the community. It remains crucial to address the spectrum of existing risk factors pertaining to veteran suicide towards ameliorating the veterans’ quality of life, and averting suicidal behavior.