Whether it’s active duty or deployment to the frontlines, serving in the military is a unique experience that’s only truly understood by a soldier’s fellow comrades in uniform. And for an increasing number of soldiers, military life can be so harrowing, difficult and isolating that a staggering number of veterans and other military personnel have been taking their own lives in record numbers.
The Department of Veteran Affairs recently revealed that roughly 20 veterans a day commit suicide nationwide. If that figure isn’t distressing enough, researchers have also found the risk of suicide for veterans was 21 percent higher than their civilian counterparts.1
While many people would probably attribute the dramatic increase in suicides to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), two recent studies investigating the root cause of the burgeoning suicide rate have revealed a number of other contributing factors. They include substance abuse disorders, varying mental health conditions and a prevailing perception of being a burden to family and friends.2
The Power of Community
Another theory, one far more personal in nature, has also emerged as a credible explanation for the widespread and sudden loss of life. Dubbed “The Interpersonal Theory of Suicide,” Thomas Joiner says the loss of belonging, something fundamental in the life of military men and women who share a common purpose, contributes to feelings of worthlessness the longer someone is removed from deployment or separated from the military.3
Data has supported the idea of strength in numbers and how shared experiences contribute to a soldier’s overall sense of well-being. During, and immediately after deployment, there’s a tangible, reduced risk of suicide. But as more time passes outside of military life, that sense of community, of belonging, leaves a significant void. And suicidal tendencies can even affect those who haven’t been deployed and, perhaps, have left the military early for any number of reasons, disciplinary and otherwise. Feelings of failure, and how that person perceives that it may affect family and friends, can lead someone down the road toward self-harm as well.
The number of suicide attempts in a particular military unit can also lead to an increase in future suicide attempts according to recent findings by the U.S. Department of Defense. Emphasizing again how important, valued and connected the community is for soldiers, researchers have discovered that suicide risks double when someone worked in a unit with five collective previous suicide attempts as opposed to a unit with no previous attempts.4
A Cry for Help
In an effort to de-escalate such a grave number of premature deaths, there have been countless recommendations that include everything from discussing ways to restrict quick access to weapons to launching suicide prevention programs and new mental health initiatives. Soldiers have also been encouraged to have a “battle buddy” they watch out for.
But for a world where resilience is a guiding principle and compartmentalizing is often necessary, it’s important that perceptions of weakness for those struggling are kicked to the curb immediately. There’s no shame in reaching out for help, and it should be the rule rather than the exception. It’s been reported that only about half of service members who need help actually seek treatment.5
People inside and outside of the military have suggested it’s up to the commanders to challenge — and change — these stigmas. And while that would, no doubt, help efforts, the real change probably lies in the community spirit that’s built among those serving in the military in the first place. It’s probably going to take teamwork and a willingness to learn and grow together to change these faulty, outdated perceptions and turn the proverbial tide toward saving lives once and for all.
1 Shane III, Leo and Kime, Patricia. “New VA Study Finds 20 Veterans Commit Suicide Each Day.” Military Times, July 7, 2016.
2 Brown, Nathaniel. “Burden, Belonging and Capability: An Interpersonal View of Military Suicides.” Modern Medicine Network, March 29, 2017.
3 “The Interpersonal-Psychological Theory of Suicidal Behavior: Current Empirical Status.” American Psychological Association, June 2009.
4 Howard, Jacqueline. “A Suicide Attempt in an Army Unit Can Lead to More, Study Finds.” CNN Health, July 26, 2017.
5 Childress, Sarah. “Why Soldiers Keep Losing to Suicide.” PBS Frontline, December 20, 2012.