At times, there are issues we would rather not talk about but must. Certainly, suicide has historically been high among them. Yet it stands today as the 10th-leading cause of death for people of all ages in the United States. It remains a major public health problem and a tragedy that warrants society-wide recognition and discussion and a public health commitment.
Every 40 seconds, somewhere in the world, someone takes his or her life. That equates to nearly 1 million people worldwide every year. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, suicide is the leading cause of death for Americans ages 15 to 29. For every suicide, there are as many as 40 suicide attempts in the United States. Men, women and young people are dying. If we are ever to reverse this pattern, we must come to terms with a perplexing issue that remains difficult to understand, hard to investigate and so challenging to prevent.
I also am reminded that Veterans Day is fast approaching (Nov. 11). Not to be confused with the recently observed Memorial Day, Veterans Day is set aside to celebrate the service of all U.S. military veterans. According to data compiled by Military.com, in 2018, the U.S. military experienced the highest number of suicides among active-duty troops in six years. A total of 321 active-duty members took their life that year. As troubling as that is, according to a Reuters Health report, veterans are potentially more likely to die by suicide during the first year after they leave the military than after more time has passed. Veterans are 21% more likely to take their own life than their civilian counterparts. It’s alleged, though unsubstantiated, that between 50,000 and 100,000 Vietnam veterans have taken their own life since 1980. Official investigations refute this figure, setting it closer to 10,000 deaths between 1980 and 1990.
According to a study conducted by the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California, compared with people still on active duty in the military, veterans out of the service for up to three months were 2.5 times more likely to die by suicide. Veterans who left the service from three to 12 months earlier had almost triple the suicide odds of current members of the military. The study found that six years after leaving the military, veterans still had a 63% higher risk of suicide than those remaining in military service.
While service members benefit from the positive psychological impact of belonging to a group with a shared mission during deployment, many of those discharged from service enter a world of isolation. Civilian experiences from unemployment to financial hardship to housing insecurity may factor into risk of suicide, though military clinicians admit that data is lacking on civilian experiences of those discharged from service. They do know that many recently discharged veterans continue to avoid seeking professional psychological help when they need it.
“Unfortunately, despite numerous efforts to reduce stigma and other barriers to care, stigma remains pervasive in society,” Charles Hoge, a senior scientist at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research, told Reuters. Findings suggest that many veterans may need mental health services long after they return home.
Military suicide has occurred for centuries in branches of service around the world. As a medical problem, “it has mostly been overlooked or ignored,” wrote Simon Harold Walker, a suicidologist and medical historian at the University of Strathclyde, in a Time magazine report. It is time for that history to be acknowledged, researched and publicly debated.
Most people today do not have any direct connection to the unique challenges of military life. Less than 1% of today’s U.S. population is serving in the U.S. military, compared to 12% during World War II.
Approximately 180,000 men and women volunteer for and enter active-duty forces each year. Who are these men and women who make up the less than 1%? According to one report, 84% of Marine recruits are age 20 or younger. Today, approximately 1 in 5 enlisted members and officers in the Air Force and Navy are women. In 2015, there were an estimated 18 million veterans in the United States.
Within the world of civilian life that new veterans are now entering, few communities have escaped a more than two-decade increase in suicides. These surging rates have contributed to a sustained decline in life expectancy in the United States. For us, it remains a growing American tragedy. It is crucial that we, as well as other countries around the world, recognize and face the problem. As Simon Harold Walker writes, we must do this to “understand the past and to save lives in the future.”
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