At a Glance: The Veteran Suicide Epidemic

  • 22 Veterans commit suicide every day, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs. That’s more than 8,000 Veteran suicides every year and approximately 65.000 since the current conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan began. 
  • During the 13 years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan the U.S. has lost about 8,300 patriots – total.
  • The Veterans Crisis Line handles 22,000 calls per month.
  • Only 1 percent of Americans have served in the military, but Veterans account for 20 percent of all suicides in the U.S.; Female service members account for five percent of suicides.
  • Data released by the Pentagon for 2008-2011 shows that 52 percent of military suicides were by those who did not deploy to a combat zone; 34 percent deployed but in a non-combat role; only 14 percent were combat Veterans.
  • The suicide rate for divorced service members is 55 percent higher than the suicide rate for married ones.
  • Veterans with Post-Traumatic Stress (PTS) are three times as likely to take their own lives than their civilian peers.
  • According to the Austin-American Statesman, which conducted a study of the deaths of nearly 350 Texan Veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, of those with a primary diagnosis of Post-Traumatic Stress, 80 percent died of overdose, suicide or a single-vehicle crash.
  • According to the Institute of Medicine, deployment to a war zone increases the risk of marital and family conflict, alcohol abuse and suicide.
  • Between 37 and 50 percent of OEF/OIF vets in the VA healthcare system have received a mental disorder diagnosis, such as PTS or depression; 27 percent were diagnosed with PTS. Rates among those wounded or hospitalized because of combat were higher.
  • According to a recent study by the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, two thirds of respondents said they have Veteran friends who need mental health counseling.
  • A landmark 2008 RAND study estimated of the cost of PTS and major depression for two years after deployment ranges from $6K to $25K per case. Total societal costs of the conditions for two years, depending on whether the economic costs of suicide are included, range from $4 billion to $6.2 billion. This includes the costs of lost productivity, reduced quality of life, homelessness, domestic violence and the strain on families.
  • Delivery of “evidence-based care” to all Veterans with PTS or major depression would pay for itself within two years or even save money.
  • The 2008 study by RAND concluded that, using evidence-based interventions, complete remission of PTS can be achieved in 30-50 percent of cases, and partial improvement “can be expected with most patients.” 

Frequently Asked Questions

What is Post-Traumatic Stress?
Combat PTS is “the persistence into civilian life, after danger, of the valid adaptations you made to stay alive when other people were trying to kill you.” (Jonathan Shay, clinical psychiatrist, author of Odysseus in America: Combat Trauma and the Trials of Homecoming.)

Why don’t we use the D (as in PTSD)?
We believe Post-Traumatic Stress is an injury, no different than a physical one. A broken leg, diabetes, cancer…none of these are called “disorders.” The D contributes to an unhelpful stigma of mental health issues that prevents people from getting the help they need–and deserve.

What accounts for the epidemic of suicides among Veterans?
The short answer is that no one is certain. Suicide is a complex issue without a one-size-fits-all explanation or solution. We do know that suicidal behavior often occurs without warning and often quickly following the onset of suicidal thoughts, underscoring the importance of acting quickly at the first sign of distress.

But a recent study, Suicide Among Soldiers: A Review of Psychosocial Risk and Protective Factors (Nock et al) offers some interesting food for thought:

“Suicidal behaviors most often are preceded by stressful life events…(which) may play an especially strong role in the occurrence, and potentially in the recent increase, of suicide among soldiers, given the severely stressful events associated with military training and practice in general. Soldiers experience many different forms of stressors, which can be classified as: military-related stressors (e.g., combat exposure, injury, bereavement, negative unit climate—such as feeling ostracized from one’s unit, not fitting in, or feeling that one has let the unit down), family-related stressors (e.g., separation from family, marital/romantic distress or infidelity, family illness/death), and other personal stressors (e.g., legal/disciplinary problems, physical/sexual assault, acute health problems, financial/occupational problems).”

How effective is the Veterans Crisis Line?
Since its launch in 2007, the Veterans Crisis Line has answered more than 890,000 calls and made more than 30,000 life-saving rescues. In 2009, the Veterans Crisis Line added an anonymous online chat service and has logged more than 108,000 chats. In November 2011, a text messaging service was added and has responded to more than 10,000 texts.