Suicide Among Veterans: Stats, Risk Factors, & Strategies for Prevention

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Last Updated - 07/05/2024

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Key Takeaways

  • Veteran suicide rates are significantly higher than those of nonveterans, with younger veterans aged 18-34 being particularly vulnerable.
  • Historical trends show periods of increase and decrease in veteran suicide rates, with a notable rise in 2021.
  • Military deployment, especially in post-9/11 conflicts, correlates with increased suicide rates among veterans.
  • Women veterans face a higher suicide risk compared to civilian women, and older veterans are also at greater risk.
  • Key risk factors for veteran suicide include psychiatric disorders like PTSD, depression, and substance misuse.
  • Many veterans with mental health disorders do not receive adequate treatment, highlighting the need for improved access to care.
  • Substance misuse, particularly alcohol and prescription drugs, is linked to increased suicide risk among veterans.
  • Prevention strategies involve raising awareness, training healthcare providers, and evaluating program effectiveness.
  • The Veterans Crisis Line provides critical support, with 24/7 access via phone, text, or online chat.
  • Efforts are being made to expand mental health services and to ensure equitable access to care for all veterans.

Suicide Among Veterans: Stats, Risk Factors, & Strategies for Prevention

Suicide among veterans is a critical public health concern shaped by complex factors and requires targeted interventions. Veterans face heightened risks due to factors such as mental health disorders (e.g., PTSD, depression), substance abuse, and challenges with transition to civilian life. To address this issue effectively, strategies include enhancing mental health services, promoting community support, integrating lethal means safety, and leveraging research-driven policies. This overview delves into these factors and outlines comprehensive strategies aimed at reducing veteran suicide rates.

Statistical Overview of Veteran Suicide Rates: Trends and Disparities

  • Higher Suicide Rates Among Veterans: Recent studies indicate that veterans have significantly higher suicide rates compared to nonveterans. Research published in JAMA Network Open reveals that between 2017 and 2020, veterans had a suicide rate 1.57 to 1.66 times higher than nonveterans in the United States, after adjusting for age and sex. This highlights the disparity in suicide rates despite ongoing efforts to address the crisis.
  • Rising Rates: The US Department of Veterans Affairs reports that the age- and sex-adjusted suicide rate among veterans increased by 11.6% from 2020 to 2021, compared to a 4.5% increase among non-veteran US adults. This rise underscores the urgent need for enhanced mental health support and suicide prevention initiatives for veterans.
  • Young Veterans at Greater Risk: According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information, veterans aged 18-34 have the highest suicide rate at 45.9 per 100,000, nearly triple the rate for nonveterans of the same age group. This statistic reflects the significant vulnerability of younger veterans.

These findings demonstrate the critical need for targeted prevention strategies and mental health services that cater to veterans’ unique experiences and challenges.

Historical Trends in Veteran Suicide Rates

  • Notable Increases in 2021: In 2021, 6,392 veterans died by suicide, an increase of 114 suicides from the previous year. This represents an 11.6% increase in the age- and sex-adjusted suicide rate among veterans, compared to a 4.5% increase among non-veteran US adults. The 2023 National Veteran Suicide Prevention Annual Report provides these insights.
  • Pandemic Impact: Despite some studies indicating a decline in suicide rates among adults since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, a significant portion of veterans experienced new-onset suicidal ideation and planning. The JAMA Psychiatry study on longitudinal trends during the pandemic provides evidence of this contrast.
  • Historical Patterns: Suicide rates among active-duty personnel have climbed significantly since 2004. A study published in JAMA Network Open places these rates in a broader historical perspective, offering insights for ongoing research efforts. Additionally, the trend of declining veteran suicide rates that began in 2019 continued into 2020, according to the 2022 Office of Mental Health and Suicide Prevention report.

Ongoing monitoring of these trends is crucial to understanding the factors influencing veteran suicide rates and developing effective prevention strategies.

Deployment and Suicide Rates in Veterans

  • Impact of Military Deployment: There is a troubling correlation between military deployment and increased suicide rates among veterans. Post-9/11 conflicts have seen particularly high numbers, with an estimated 30,177 active duty personnel and veterans having died by suicide, a figure substantially exceeding combat fatalities during the same period.
  • Challenges of Reintegration: Research indicates multiple factors at play, ranging from combat stress to the difficulties of reintegration into civilian life, contributing to these high suicide rates. Concerns have been raised about the suicide risk among veterans returning from deployments in Afghanistan and Iraq as part of Operations Enduring Freedom, Iraqi Freedom, and New Dawn (OEF/OIF/OND), according to a study. Gender and unit component differences in suicide risk underscore the need for targeted prevention strategies.
  • COVID-19 Pandemic Effects: The pandemic exacerbated preexisting mental health conditions such as PTSD and depression, which increase the risk of suicide. The National Health and Resilience in Veterans Study (NHRVS) findings highlight the importance of social support and virtual technologies in mitigating these risks.

Despite a general decline in suicide rates among US adults during the pandemic, a significant portion of veterans developed new-onset suicidal ideation and/or planning. These findings, reported in the JAMA Psychiatry, emphasize the need for continued monitoring and support for this vulnerable population.

Age and Gender Variations in Veteran Suicide Rates

  • Rising Suicide Rates Among Women Veterans: The suicide rate among women veterans has risen sharply, with a 61% increase from 2005 to 2017, compared to a 43% increase among male veterans. Women veterans are 2.2 times more likely to die by suicide than civilian women, suggesting unique risk factors associated with military service and the transition back to civilian life, such as military sexual trauma (MST).
  • Older Veterans’ Vulnerability: Older veterans are particularly vulnerable to suicide. The 2022 National Veteran Suicide Prevention Annual Report indicates higher suicide rates among older veterans, likely due to age-related challenges such as physical health decline and social isolation.

These findings emphasize the need for targeted suicide prevention strategies that address the specific needs of different subgroups within the veteran population. Recognizing and responding to age and gender differences can enhance the effectiveness of interventions aimed at reducing veteran suicide rates.

Risk Factors of Veteran Suicide

Understanding the risk factors for suicide among veterans is crucial for prevention and intervention. Research indicates that veterans face unique challenges that increase their susceptibility to suicidal thoughts and behaviors (STBs).

Key Risk Factors

  • Psychiatric Disorders: Veterans are more likely to suffer from psychiatric disorders such as posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), major depressive disorder, and alcohol use disorder. These conditions are strongly linked to STBs and are more prevalent among veterans than the general population, often exacerbated by their military experiences.
  • Adverse Childhood Experiences and Combat Exposure: These factors contribute to emotion dysregulation and heightened stress susceptibility, both of which can lead to suicidal ideation.
  • Loneliness and Poor Physical Health: These are robust correlates of STBs among veterans.
  • COVID-19 Pandemic: This period has been a particular concern, with some veterans experiencing new-onset suicidal ideation and planning despite an overall decline in suicide rates among adults.

Recognizing these risk factors and providing timely, targeted support to veterans is essential. Preventive measures and interventions must address both the psychological and situational aspects that contribute to the heightened risk of suicide in this population. Comprehensive reviews and annual reports on veteran suicide prevention emphasize the need for a holistic approach that includes mental health services, community engagement, and support systems tailored to veterans’ unique experiences and needs.

The Role of Mental Health Disorders in Veteran Suicide

Mental health disorders, particularly PTSD and depression, are significant factors contributing to the high rates of suicide among veterans.

  • Correlation with Suicide Attempts: Studies indicate a strong correlation between the severity of PTSD symptoms and the likelihood of suicide attempts. Mental health disorders can impair social and occupational functioning, leading to feelings of isolation and hopelessness, which are risk factors for suicide. Chronic pain, common among veterans with PTSD, can further exacerbate the risk of suicide.
  • Barriers to Treatment: Despite the clear need, many veterans with mental health disorders do not seek or receive adequate treatment. Barriers such as stigma and lack of access to services contribute to underutilization of mental health resources. The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has been working to integrate mental health care with primary care and other non-mental health clinics to improve access and encourage treatment uptake. Nonetheless, only a fraction of veterans with probable mental health disorders are engaged in treatment, emphasizing the need for enhanced outreach and support.
  • Substance Use Disorders (SUDs): Veterans with SUDs, especially when co-occurring with mental health disorders like PTSD, have a heightened risk of self-harm and suicide. The complexity of these interrelated issues requires a multifaceted approach to treatment and prevention, including comprehensive screening, intervention counseling, and evidence-based therapies tailored to the veteran population.

Research efforts continue to explore innovative treatment methods to reduce suicide risk among veterans. For example, studies have examined the impact of brain energy optimization on mental health symptoms, which may offer new avenues for treatment. As the understanding of the relationship between mental health disorders and veteran suicide deepens, it is clear that a concerted effort from both the VA and community care partners is essential to address this public health crisis effectively.

Substance Abuse and Suicide Risk Among Veterans

Substance misuse is a critical issue impacting veterans and is closely linked to increased suicide risk.

  • Tobacco Use: The prevalence of tobacco use among veterans is notably higher compared to non-veterans, with close to 30% reporting usage. This habit imposes a substantial financial burden on the Veterans Health Administration (VHA), with estimated costs of $2.7 billion for smoking-related healthcare services.
  • Alcohol Use: Alcohol use is another major concern, with 56.6% of veterans reporting alcohol use and 7.5% engaging in heavy drinking, which is higher than their non-veteran counterparts. The majority of veterans entering treatment programs cite alcohol as the primary substance of misuse, nearly double the rate of the general population.
  • Prescription Drug Misuse: This poses a significant risk, with a reported increase in prescriptions for pain medication among military personnel. Although recent data indicates a decrease in prescription opioid misuse among veterans, the concern remains pertinent due to the strong association between SUDs and suicidal ideation, attempts, and deaths by suicide.

It is essential to integrate treatment strategies for SUDs and co-occurring mental health conditions to improve outcomes for veterans struggling with these dual challenges.

Prevention Strategies: Intervening in Veteran Suicide

Comprehensive Approaches

The challenge of veteran suicide has prompted a multifaceted response from government agencies, healthcare providers, and community organizations. A comprehensive approach involves collaboration across various departments to implement key priorities:

  • Raising Awareness: Public awareness campaigns aim to inform both veterans and the general public about the signs of suicidal behavior and available resources.
  • Training Healthcare Providers: Programs are in place to train healthcare providers in identifying and responding to suicidal ideation among veterans.
  • Evaluating Program Effectiveness: Continuous assessment of suicide prevention programs ensures they meet the evolving needs of the veteran community.
  • Emergency care settings: These settings are crucial for stabilizing at-risk individuals and connecting them to ongoing care.

The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has declared suicide prevention as its top clinical priority, emphasizing public health strategies. Adequate funding for veterans’ mental health services, crisis intervention, and suicide prevention efforts is crucial. Community interventions targeting the social determinants of health are also essential in lowering suicide risk.

Innovative Initiatives

  • Mission Daybreak: This $20 million challenge invites innovators to develop new suicide prevention strategies.
  • VA Annual Report: This report highlights the need for targeted interventions to address the rise in veteran suicide rates.

Overall, these strategies aim to improve lethal means safety, enhance crisis care, and ensure seamless care transitions for veterans experiencing mental health crises.

Critical Support Through the Veterans Crisis Line

The Veterans Crisis Line offers immediate assistance to veterans, service members, and their families during crises. To access this confidential support, individuals in the United States can dial 988 and then press ‘1’ or text 838255. This service is available 24/7, providing a lifeline to those in urgent need. Online chat is also an option, ensuring multiple avenues of communication are open for veterans who may prefer not to speak on the phone.

The Veterans Crisis Line has undergone significant expansion to meet growing demand, highlighting its critical role in suicide prevention and mental health support for the veteran community. For veterans located overseas, the Veterans/Military Crisis Line Chat ensures global accessibility. The service is staffed by trained VA responders equipped to offer professional and compassionate support.

Expanding Mental Health Services for Veterans

The VA is actively expanding mental health services to better serve veterans:

  • Agency Equity Action Plan: This plan includes initiatives to ensure equitable access to healthcare and benefits for all veterans, regardless of background or location.
  • Transition Assistance: Visiting Department of Defense installations to support transitioning service members and updating the Transition Assistance Program curriculum.
  • Waiving Copays: The VA is waiving copays for American Indian and Alaska Native Veterans, saving them millions in healthcare costs.
  • Exposure to Agent Orange: Proposing rules to extend presumed areas of exposure to Agent Orange, simplifying the process for affected veterans to receive benefits.

Legislation is underway to enhance mental health services provided by Vet Centers, expanding eligibility to include student veterans using VA educational benefits. There is also a focus on combating veteran suicides by exploring new treatment avenues that acknowledge the unique mental health challenges faced by veterans.

Veterans seeking information on benefits or assistance with the application process can visit the VA website or call 1-800-827-1000. The VA is also simplifying the application process for benefits, making it more accessible for veterans to receive the support they need.

Advancing Research and Policy to Prevent Suicide

Addressing veteran suicide requires ongoing research and adaptive policy measures. The following outlines key areas of focus and strategic actions:

High-Risk Subgroups

The National Center for Biotechnology Information emphasizes that certain subgroups within the veteran population face increased risks and require targeted interventions:

  • Criminal Justice System Involvement: Veterans involved in the criminal justice system.
  • LGBTQ Veterans: LGBTQ veterans face unique challenges and risks.
  • Other-than-Honorable Discharges: Veterans with other-than-honorable discharges.

VA’s Public Health Approach

The US Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has prioritized preventing veteran suicide, recognizing the highest suicide rates among veterans aged 18-34. The VA’s comprehensive public health approach is outlined in the National Strategy for Preventing Veteran Suicide (2018-2028).

Key Elements of the Approach:

  1. Identifying Effective Prevention Strategies: Research should focus on high-risk groups, the impacts of war and deployment on mental health, and the efficacy of existing interventions.
  2. Collaboration with Community Organizations: Partnerships with community organizations are critical for expanding mental health services.
  3. Expansion of Mental Health Services: Significant funding and resources are being allocated to enhance mental health services and suicide prevention efforts.

Budget and Resource Allocation

The VA’s budget proposal for 2024 includes significant funding for mental health and suicide prevention. Key initiatives include:

  • Hiring Community Engagement and Partnership Coordinators: Strengthening community-based support for veterans.
  • Enhancing Access to Care: Improving care transitions and promoting connectedness among veterans.

Policy Initiatives

To reduce veteran suicide rates, the following policy initiatives are crucial:

  • Enhancing Access to Care: Ensure all veterans have access to necessary care and support.
  • Improving Care Transitions: Smooth transitions between different stages of care.
  • Promoting Connectedness: Foster a sense of community and support among veterans.
  • Integrating Lethal Means Safety and Safety Planning: Incorporate these practices into healthcare settings.


Reducing veteran suicide rates requires a whole-of-nation approach. This involves:

  • Leveraging Research to Inform Policy: Continuous research is essential to identify and implement effective interventions.
  • Implementing Evidence-Based Interventions: Policies must be based on research findings to ensure efficacy and impact.
  • Collaboration Across Sectors: Government, healthcare providers, and community organizations must work together to support veterans effectively.

By focusing on these strategic areas, we can better address the complex issue of veteran suicide and provide the necessary support to those who have served our nation.

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