National Suicide Prevention MonthUpdated: March 22, 2021
Editor’s Note: Military members, veterans, and their families should know about one of the most important suicide prevention resources available to them-the Veterans Crisis Line, which can be reached at 1-800-273-8255. Call this number if you or someone you know is struggling with suicidal feelings.
September is National Suicide Prevention Month, and while this important time of observance and suicide awareness is not limited to veterans, active duty, National Guard, or Reservists, the military’s needs in this area cannot be overlooked.
Suicide in the Armed Forces has been a critical issue for as long as there have been branches of the military. Just how critical? The following numbers represent some of the most recent reports for suicide rates for the active duty military, Reserves, National Guard, and veterans:
- The 2015 Department of Defense Suicide Event Report (DoDSER) stated that the suicide rates were about 25 per 100,000 for Reservists and about 27 per 100,000 for National Guard service members.
- 2016 suicide rates for individual branches of service were about 19 per 100,000 for the Air Force, about 27 per 100,000 for the Army, about 15 per 100,000 for the Navy, and about 21 per 100,000 for the Marine Corps.
- According to a 2019 Congressional Research Service report titled “Recent Trends in Active-Duty Military Deaths,” between 2006 and 2018, 3,863 active duty service members ended their own lives. This is more than service members who were killed in action, (2.710), and service members who died by wounds received, (886), combined.
- According to a 2016 report from the Office of Suicide Prevention, while veterans account for only 8.5% of the U.S. population, 18% of all adult suicides in the U.S. are veterans, or about 20 veteran suicides per day.
These numbers paint a sobering picture: Suicide is the second leading cause of death among service members, and one of the leading causes of death among veterans.
A History Of Recent Military Efforts To Combat Suicide In Military Communities
According to a presentation by Defense Suicide Prevention Office Acting Director Jacqueline Garrick, between 2001 and 2008, suicide deaths in active duty military service members increased from about 10 in 100 thousand people to about 16 in 100 thousand people.
In response to this increase, the Secretary of Defense initiated a Defense Health Board Task Force, which recommended the creation of a Defense Suicide Prevention Office (DSPO). This office was established as part of the Department of Defense’s Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness.
The mission was both simple and lofty: a mission-ready, suicide-free military community. DSPO sought to promote suicide prevention in military and veteran communities through policy, oversight, and engagement, and to create cultural change within these communities regarding mental health and wellness.
DSPO programs include suicide prevention, intervention, and post-vention through medical and non-medical resources, and collaboration with military services, government agencies, non-government agencies, non-profit organizations, and communities.
The DSPO was also tasked with several responsibilities:
- To serve as the authoritative source for suicide data in the DoD
- To evaluate the effectiveness and strategic integration of suicide prevention programs and research throughout DoD
- To advocate for all suicide prevention efforts with internal and external partners
- To serve as the primary originator and coordinator of suicide prevention policy throughout the DoD
Within a few years of the creation of the DSPO, the Air Force. Army, National Guard, Marine Corps, Navy, Coast Guard, and VA all established suicide prevention programs.
Since its creation in 2011, the DoD Defense Suicide Prevention Office has worked alongside civilian organizations to raise awareness regarding suicide prevention. It has released annual reports detailing statistics on suicide among service members and veterans, held conferences for both service and civilian mental health professionals, maintained a social media presence, and offered easily accessed support for service members who struggle with suicidal thoughts.
The VA has also released reports on suicide rates among veterans and offered support for veterans who struggle with suicidal thoughts.
During National Suicide Prevention month, numerous communities, survivors, and organizations, including the DSPO and VA, will coordinate efforts to promote suicide prevention awareness and advocacy. However, starting in 2017, DSPO efforts were hindered by several factors, including the resignation of a number of experienced senior staff members, including Dr. Caitlin Thompson, the director of the agency’s suicide prevention office.
In an interview, Thompson said she resigned in July 2017 because of repeated changes in how the office was overseen and because she felt mounting pressure to produce work that would be politically flashy but have little impact on veterans’ lives. At least one published report published in 2019 claims that the VA Suicide Prevention Office “essentially languished” after Thompson’s departure.
That was printed in the New York Times, which added that according to a Government Accountability Office Report, the VA Suicide Prevention Office spent only “$57,000 of its $6.2 million media budget, and its presence on social media declined 77 percent from the levels of 2015.”
Add to that another observation made in the same 2019 NYT article by a spokesperson from the American Association of Suicidology that statistically, veterans who commit suicide are not seeking services from the VA and it’s easy to understand criticism leveled at the agency that enough is not being done to reach such people in their times of crisis.
The Government Accountability Office (GAO) report adds plenty of fuel to that particular fire in its’ 2018 report, noting, “…we found that VA’s outreach activities dropped off in 2017 and 2018, and the office responsible for these activities lacked consistent leadership. We also found that VA did not have clear goals for evaluating the effectiveness of its outreach activities.”
Suicide Prevention: Help Is Available For Those In Need
Military members and families have a wide range of resources available for those in need and for those worried about military members or veterans who may be considering suicide. The Veterans Crisis Line is an online and phone-based resource intended for:
- All Veterans
- All Service members
- National Guard and Reserve
- Family members and friends
The Veterans Crisis Line is free, confidential and available 24 hours a day, seven days a week and is open to all even if you are not registered with the VA or enrolled in VA healthcare services. This crisis line has been operational since 2007 and has since that time taken nearly four million phone calls, responded to more than 100 thousand text messages and has helped veterans, currently serving military, family, and friends with more than 450 thousand chat sessions.
How To Connect With The Veterans Crisis Line
- By Text: Send a text message to 838255. The text is free, but your service provider’s message and data rates may apply.
- By Chat: Go to the Veterans Crisis Line official chat page and follow the instructions.
- By Phone: Call 1-800-273-8255 and press 1.
There are plenty of other resources for military members and their families including service-specific resources:
- U.S. Air Force Suicide Prevention
- U.S. Army Suicide Prevention
- U.S. National Guard Suicide Prevention
- U.S. Marine Corps Suicide Prevention
- U.S. Navy Suicide Prevention
- U.S. Coast Guard Suicide Prevention
Warning Signs Of Suicide And Suicidal Behavior
The Department of Veterans Affairs official site lists a variety of warning signs for military members, veterans, and their families to look out for in times of crisis, stress, and situations leading up to or following such periods. These warning signs include:
- Feelings of hopelessness
- Feeling like there’s no way out of a problem or circumstance
- Anxiety and agitation
- Mood swings
- Feeling like there is no reason to live
- Rage / anger
- Risky behavior
- Increasing alcohol or drug use / abuse
- Withdrawing from family and friends
The VA advises immediate attention in cases where:
- There are thoughts about self-harm
- Researching ways to die or commit suicide
- Talk about death, dying, suicide
- Self-destructive behavior
There are many situations where military members and their families are more vulnerable to problems with suicidal feelings, thoughts, or actions. These can include time leading up to or coming back from a deployment, times of personal upheaval and uncertainty, and situations where major life changes are occurring.
Conversely, none of these things needs to be happening for people to struggle with suicidal thoughts or actions. Some service-connected or service-aggravated conditions can also contribute to suicidal feelings such as Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI), Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, alcohol abuse, and other medical or medically-related problems.
The approach to suicidal feelings in these cases may start with counseling or other talk-based therapies but a medical approach may also be required depending on the cause of the problems and the severity of the condition.
Always reach out for help if you or a friend or loved one struggles in any way with suicidal feelings.
The Veterans Crisis Line can be reached at 1-800-273-8255. Call this number if you or someone you know is struggling with suicidal feelings.