Suicide is a serious concern in the veteran community. More than 6,000 vets died by suicide every year between 2008 and 2017,1 amounting to around 20 deaths per day.2 More than half of all veterans that completed suicide in 2016 and 2017 suffered from a substance use or mental health disorder.1
The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and other organizations have been studying the risk factors for suicide among vets and developing programs and resources for helping vets who are in crisis. Vets and their loved ones can access help through the VA, crisis lines, and treatment programs specifically designed to meet their needs.
Veteran Suicide Risk Factors
Veterans are at higher risk for suicide than the general population.3 Among vets, those that are male and were never deployed have the highest risk.3 The risk for suicide is also greatest for vets approximately 3 years after leaving the service.3
Vets face unique challenges that can contribute to suicide risk, such as exposure to extreme stress and trauma. 4 Service-related trauma can contribute to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which is a mental health condition that involves high levels of anxiety and difficulty coping following a traumatic event.5 When PTSD is left untreated, vets are at higher risk for suicide.5
Experiencing physical or sexual assault during one’s military service is another factor linked to higher risk for suicide.4,6 This can include robbery, violence, physical abuse, battery, or rape.6 Both women and men may be the victims of sexual or physical violence.4
Vets who perceive greater stigma and barriers to seeking help are also at elevated risk for suicide.7 Stigma may involve actual or perceived judgment by others for having a substance use or mental health condition. Stigma can prevent vets from seeking the help that they need for their conditions. When a vet’s depression or suicidal ideation is left untreated, there is much greater risk for acting on their thoughts.
Substance Use and Suicide
Substance abuse, specifically use of alcohol and opioids, is prevalent among veterans.8 Around 10% of vets returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan developed problems with drugs or alcohol.9 Vets who are male, unmarried, and under age 25 have the highest rates of substance use.8
Veterans who experience mental health conditions, including PTSD, may use drugs or alcohol to cope with their symptoms.9 Over 20% of vets with PTSD also have a substance use disorder and over 30% of vets who seek addiction treatment also have PTSD.9 Almost 95% of vets believe that there is a relationship between their addiction and PTSD symptoms, and 85% feel that their substance use increases when their PTSD symptoms worsen.10
Substance use disorders are linked to a higher risk for suicide.11 The rates are highest for males and females who abuse prescription sedatives and females who abuse opioid medications.11 Oftentimes these vets are also suffering from psychiatric conditions such as PTSD or depression.11
Knowing the warning signs for suicide and getting proper treatment can prevent vets from acting on suicidal thoughts.
Warning Signs of Veteran Suicide
People who are contemplating suicide may show certain warning signs that loved ones may notice. The warning signs for suicide can vary from person to person. In general, warning signs that a veteran may be contemplating suicide include:12,13
- Feeling depressed and hopeless.
- Appearing angry, moody, or agitated.
- Showing less interest in hobbies, school, work, or other activities that were once important.
- Sleeping too much or too little.
- Abusing drugs or alcohol.
- Taking more and bigger risks.
- Isolating from friends and family.
- Expressing a desire to no longer be alive.
- Being unable to identify any reasons to live.
- Talking about death or suicide.
- Giving away important items.
- Acquiring items that may be used for suicide, like pills or weapons.
Some signs of suicide are very serious and may warrant immediate intervention. If your loved one tells you that they plan on committing suicide or obtain the means to do so, call 911 immediately.
Myths and Facts About Suicide
MYTH: Men attempt suicide more often than women.
FACT: Women attempt suicide at higher rates than men. However, men complete suicide more often.14 Women are 3 to 4 times more likely to attempt suicide, while men are 4 times more likely to complete suicide.14
MYTH: People who attempt suicide rarely show signs that they are suicidal.
FACT: People who attempt suicide often show signs that they are suffering.14 Knowing the signs of suicidal ideation can help you notice if a loved one is struggling and get help.
MYTH: People who feel suicidal always want to die.
FACT: Many people who feel suicidal want to live but feel hopeless and unsure of how to help themselves.14
MYTH: Asking a loved one if they’re having suicidal thoughts will make them commit suicide.
FACT: Asking a loved one about their depression or suicidal ideation will not cause them to act on it.4,14 Speaking with a loved one who is suffering can show them that you care and may encourage them to get help.
Suicide Prevention for Veterans
While suicide is a serious concern for veterans, it is preventable.12 Whether you’re a vet yourself, loved one, healthcare provider, or another member of the community, we all play a role in helping prevent suicide among vets.
Treatment for co-occurring disorders can help vets who are struggling with substance abuse and mental health issues. Getting help for these problems can reduce suicidal ideation among vets and help prevent suicide.15
Addressing one problem without the other can possibly lead to relapse, while addressing both conditions at the same time can increase the likelihood of a full recovery.16 Laguna Treatment Hospital offers high-quality medical detox and co-occurring disorder treatment.
Laguna’s two sister facilities, Desert Hope in Las Vegas and Recovery First in Hollywood, FL, offer a specialized treatment program for veterans called Salute to Recovery. This residential program offers help for vets dealing with substance abuse and mental health concerns like anxiety, depression, and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The treatment team is specially trained to work with vets and provide evidence-based treatments. In addition to high-quality care, vets can benefit from connecting with peers with similar military backgrounds.
In Crisis? Get Immediate Help
If you are a veteran in crisis, there are resources available for immediate help:
- The Veterans Crisis Line is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week by phone (call 1-800-273-8255 and press 1), text message (838255), and online chat. The crisis line can help connect vets and their loved ones with VA responders who can provide support, assistance, and referrals to local community resources.
- The National Veterans Foundation’s Lifeline for Vets (1-888-777-4443) provides vet-to-vet support for veterans in crisis and those who need housing, employment, medical care, or other VA services. The hotline is open Monday to Friday from 9am to 5pm Pacific time.
- Vets4Warriors offers support to vets by phone (1-855-838-8255) and email. When you contact the support line you will be connected with another vet or member of the military community who can listen and offer support. Vets4Warriors is not an emergency crisis line but rather a resource for vets who would like to speak with someone confidentially and anonymously.
- U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. (2019). 2019 National veteran suicide prevention annual report.
- Steinhauer, J. (2019, April 14). A. officials, and the nation, battle an unrelenting tide of veteran suicides. The New York Times.
- U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. (2019). Suicide risk and risk of death among recent veterans.
- California Department of Veterans Affairs. (2013). Suicide prevention.
- Pompili, M., Sher, L., Serafini, G., Forte, A., Innamorati, M., Dominici, G., … & Girardi, P. (2013). Posttraumatic stress disorder and suicide risk among veterans: A literature review. The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, 201(9), 802-812.
- Bryan, C. J., McNaugton‐Cassill, M., Osman, A., & Hernandez, A. M. (2013). The associations of physical and sexual assault with suicide risk in nonclinical military and undergraduate samples. Suicide and Life‐Threatening Behavior, 43(2), 223-234.
- Pietrzak, R. H., Goldstein, M. B., Malley, J. C., Rivers, A. J., Johnson, D. C., & Southwick, S. M. (2010). Risk and protective factors associated with suicidal ideation in veterans of Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom. Journal of Affective Disorders, 123(1-3), 102-107.
- Teeters, J. B., Lancaster, C. L., Brown, D. G., & Back, S. E. (2017). Substance use disorders in military veterans: prevalence and treatment challenges. Substance Abuse and Rehabilitation, 8, 69-77.
- U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. (2019). PTSD and substance abuse in veterans.
- Back, S. E., Killeen, T. K., Teer, A. P., Hartwell, E. E., Federline, A., Beylotte, F., & Cox, E. (2014). Substance use disorders and PTSD: An exploratory study of treatment preferences among military veterans. Addictive Behaviors, 39(2), 369-373.
- Bohnert, K. M., Ilgen, M. A., Louzon, S., McCarthy, J. F., & Katz, I. R. (2017). Substance use disorders and the risk of suicide mortality among men and women in the US Veterans Health Administration. Addiction, 112(7), 1193-1201.
- U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. (2020). Suicide prevention.
- U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. (2019). Veteran suicide prevention.
- Nevada Division of Public and Behavioral Health (DPBH) Office of Suicide Prevention. (2019). Truth or myth about adult suicide.
- Tanielian, T. (2019). Reducing suicide among U.S. veterans: Implications from RAND research.
- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2020). Substance use disorder treatment for people with co-occurring disorders. Treatment Improvement Protocol (TIP) Series, No. 42. SAMHSA Publication No. PEP20-02-01-004. Rockville, MD: Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 2020.