The latest report from the US Department of Veteran Affairs (VA) showed that 2019 veteran suicide rates show the largest reported decrease in 12 years. Despite the 7% decrease in 2019, the overall rate is about 17 veteran suicides per day. While any reduction in veteran suicides is to be celebrated, it must not be forgotten that this nevertheless remains a significant problem.
To compare, the 2019 data shows that the Veteran suicide rate was 31.9 per 100,000; the rate of non-veteran adults in the US is 16.8 per 100,000. So why? Why has this disparity been observed for decades and yet no tangible change has been made? (The 7% decrease still yields approximately 6200 deaths by suicide in 2019, which is, by no stretch of the imagination, a manageable number, or an indication of a monumental change).
While this data comes from before the pandemic, when considering the impact of COVID-19, it’s been hypothesized that a “negative rebound effect” may make itself known in the next few years.
Not only are the potential effects of the COVID-19 pandemic not fully understood or realized, but these rates show that there remains a large problem when it comes to access to mental health services and other support for veterans.
The Complexity of the Landscape
While mental health and illness is one element of the larger problem of suicide, it’s important to acknowledge some of the other variables: homelessness, unemployment, relationship distress, and increased access to both alcohol and firearms.
Approximately 70% of veteran suicide deaths have resulted from firearm injury, and while homelessness has always been an issue for veterans, it’s been on the rise since 2020 before the COVID-19 pandemic.
Veterans only make up 6% of the national population but they comprise 8% of the homeless population. These metrics were found and evaluated prior to the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, so it stands to reason that the pandemic may have exacerbated unstable housing situations even further.
Unemployment rates for both male and female veterans rose due to the COVID-19 pandemic, increasing to 6.5% and 6.7%, respectively. The link between veterans and the role of post traumatic stress-disorder (PTSD) on relationships, such that there is a higher divorce rate than their counterparts, suggests a general lack of support in readjustment for both veterans, partners, and family members in general.
Suicide is complicated and there is no easy way to understand the topic. It’s not possible to parse through it until only one factor remains. Therefore, it is incredibly important that both attention and action are directed towards different vulnerable populations. There’s been a long history of a lack of veteran support and things need to change.
For additional resources and help, please call the Veteran Crisis Line at 1-800-273-8255 and Press 1.