There are increasing occurrences and dangers of suicides by individuals in the general public and by veterans. Suicide and suicide attempts affect the health and well-being of family and loved ones, co-workers, friends, caregivers, military and law enforcement members, and the community. Surviving family, friends, and others may experience guilt, anger, shock, symptoms of anxiety or depression, and may even experience thoughts of suicide themselves when people die by suicide.
Here are some well-documented and professional studies, statistics, and research data to support this alarming trend.
- Gun-related suicides increased by 10 percent over the period from 2019 to 2022 (Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Violence Solutions, Ari Davis, policy adviser, 10-6-2022.)
- From 2020 to 2021, the percentage of suicides attributed to firearms increased from 53% to 55%, resulting in the highest percentage of suicides since 2001 (Centers for Disease Control, Morbidity and Mortality Report, 10/7/2022.)
- An estimated 26,320 firearm suicides occurred in the U.S. during 2021, or about 72 suicides a day (Centers for Disease Control, Dr. T.R. Simon et al, 10/7/2022.)
- The overall U.S. firearm suicide rate in 2021 was the highest documented since 1993 and 1990 (Centers for Disease Control, 10/7/2022.)
- Though they tend to get less public attention than gun-related murders, suicides have long accounted for the majority of U.S. gun deaths (Pew Research Center, John Gramlich, 2/3/2022.)
- Since the Centers for Disease Control began publishing data in 1981, gun suicides have outnumbered gun homicides and suicides have become a greater share of all firearm deaths (Pew Research Center, Drew DeSilver.)
- At 87%, males are the vast majority of gun suicides. By age group, people 65 and older have the highest firearm suicide rate and many are veterans (Pew Research Center, Drew DeSilver.)
- The highest suicide rates for those equal to or greater than age 45 were among non-Hispanic White persons (Centers for Disease Control, 10/7/2022.)
- Suicides among service members and veterans are at the highest rate since 1938 (Department of Defense Report, April 2022.)
Suicide: A Significant and Urgent Public Health Problem
In 2020, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) research estimates that 12.2 million American adults seriously “thought about” suicide, while 3.2 million “planned” a suicide attempt and 1.2 million “attempted” suicide. Nearly 46,000 people died from suicide in 2020.
These startling suicide research studies and reports indicate an urgent need for suicide prevention and mental health efforts and actions. So, I want to examine some of the research data, influencing factors and variables, and possible solutions.
Suicide: A Costly Leading Cause of Death in the U.S.
Suicide is death caused when someone harms or injures themselves with the intent to die. Sometimes a suicide attempt does not result in someone losing their life as a result of their actions. It is extremely important to know and understand the factors which may cause an individual to attempt suicide, so as to prevent it.
There are many factors and variables involved that directly increase the risk for suicide and understanding them is a key initial step. A higher risk of suicide may be associated with other forms of injury, violence, work experiences, military and law enforcement conflicts and hostilities, bullying, child abuse, and sexual violence, for example. Suicide was among the top 9 leading causes of death for people ages 10-64 and was the second leading cause of death for people ages 10-14 and 25-34, per CDC data in 2020.
Serious emotional, physical, and economic problems can result from suicide and suicide attempts. There can be long-term effects on physical and mental health. Thankfully, about 90% of people who attempt suicide and survive never go on to die by suicide, according to the CDC and Psychiatry data by Owens and Horrocks.
Having easy access to mental and physical health care facilities and being linked to family, community, and military support groups can decrease suicidal thoughts and behaviors.
Suicide and non-fatal self-harm cost the nation nearly $490 billion in medical costs, work loss costs, the value of statistical life, and quality of life costs in 2019, according to Peterson, Miller, et al in Economic Cost of Injury in the CDC Weekly Report in 2021. The financial toll of suicide on society is very costly.
COVID-19, Reasons for Suicides, and Scope of the Problem
CDC data reports that “systemic inequities (e.g. in economic, educational, housing, and employment opportunities) and structural racism have contributed to disparities in outcomes, and the COVID-19 Pandemic could have worsened these conditions.” Suicide is a major, yet preventable health problem in the U.S.
Two clinical psychologists, Dr. Bonar, and Dr. Kraft have conducted in-depth research studies and teach Psych-Armor Institute classes in 2023 about Firearms and Suicide in the Military-Connected Communities. I have completed several of their classes and respect their professionalism, research methodologies, and supported findings. Their research data is statistically valid and reliable. They define the scope of the problem, dispel some widely-held misconceptions, and explain why military and veteran gun owners have unique, technical beliefs about weapons, the suicide crisis, and safe gun storage. They have several useful conclusions and suggested actions, including:
- “Owning a gun is not associated with increasing thoughts of suicide.”
- Understand that there is an intersection between the military culture and the cultures of firearms owners, veterans, non-veterans, and non-gun owners.
- It is very important to have critically-important frank and open conversations about firearms, and safe storage, and not hesitate to talk with veterans contemplating/hinting at suicide. These conversations save lives.
- When people are in crisis, honest and direct conversations about accessibility to lethal means for suicide are vitally important.
Suicidal Risk and Veterans
Sadly, veterans comprise about a quarter of suicide deaths in the U.S., according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention statistics. The suicide rate for veterans is 1.5 times higher than that of the general population, according to the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs’ VA National Suicide Data Report.
POINT: Veterans are at a higher risk for suicide.
Veterans with substance use disorders have twice the risk of suicide compared to those without a substance use disorder, according to a research team looking at data on more than 4.8 million veterans. Other factors commonly leading to increased suicide risk in veterans which are Suicidal Warning Signs include:
- Increased alcohol and/or substance/drug abuse
- Anger, rage, mood swings, and episodes of anxiety and agitation
- Expressing feelings of having no reason to live
- Feelings of loneliness, isolation, hopelessness, and depression
- Self-destructive and risky behaviors like driving while impaired
According to the American Addiction Centers, the VA found in several Suicide Prevention studies a variety of factors that may increase the risk of suicide where multiple factors exist. They include:
- Acute psychosocial stressors
- Higher doses of opioid medications for pain control
- Mental health conditions like anxiety disorder, manic-depressive disorder, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and traumatic brain injury (TBI)
- Heavy binge drinking and/or other substance abuse
- Having low cholesterol
TIP: Seek help right away if you or someone you know is experiencing signs of committing suicide. CALL OR TEXT 988 (formerly 1-800-273-talk.)
Contact the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline, if you are experiencing mental-health-related distress or are worried about a loved one or someone who may need crisis support. Chat at 988lifeline.org.
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs reports an increased suicide rate among women using VA services from 14.4 per 100,000 to 17.3 per 100,000, per Facts About Suicide Among Women Veterans, 2017. The suicide rate for female veterans compared to non-Veteran adult women is 2.5 times higher. And suicide rates are especially high among older veterans. About 58% of all veterans who committed suicide were veterans aged 55 years or older.
Veterans and Mental Health Care
Increasingly, mental illness is a strong link to suicide among veterans. Although alcohol and drug abuse account for higher suicide risks, mental disorders are often connected to substance abuse and suicide, according to Bohnert, Ilgen, et al in their study. The more common mental disorders identified among veterans are PTSD, depression, and exposure to trauma or suffering a TBI while in the service. These can lead to an increased risk of both substance abuse, PTSD, or depression. Sadly, research from a National Institute on Drug Abuse Substance Use and Military Life study estimates that up to half of returning Iraq and Afghanistan veterans have a mental health diagnosis.
Conclusions: Suicide Prevention Actions and Support
Suicide is preventable. Suicide prevention requires a comprehensive public health approach. Everyone has a role to play to save lives and to create healthy individuals, families, veterans and non-veterans, military and law enforcement members, and communities. Some states are initiating programs and actions to help prevent suicides. Some are creating protective environments to reduce substance use through community-based policies and practices. Others are creating healthy organizational policies and cultures. Still, others are stabilizing housing and helping to strengthen household financial security. Several states are improving access and delivery of suicidal care, covering mental health conditions in health insurance policies, and providing more and rapid suicidal prevention resources. Others are teaching coping and problem-solving skills to improve family relationships, parenting skills, and supporting social-emotional learning. Some are offering learning opportunities and courses about responding to crises and suicide attempts, asking the appropriate prevention questions, reducing access to lethal means among persons at risk for suicide, and providing therapeutic approaches.
If a friend, loved one, or veteran is thinking about suicide, professional help is needed, even if suicide is not an immediate danger. It is your sole responsibility as a caregiver and concerned friend or person to decide for your specific, individual situation whether or not you should take certain actions and what they should be. The Mayo Clinic says to consider taking these actions:
- Encourage the person to call or text a suicide hotline number, e.g. 988.
- Encourage the person to seek treatment from a mental health doctor, provider, support group, teacher, minister, or another trusted person.
- Offer to help the person take steps to get assistance and support, e.g. make phone calls, research treatment options, and offer to go with them to an appointment.
- Encourage the person to communicate with you and not bottle up feelings.
- Be respectful and acknowledge the person’s feelings; do not try to talk them out of their feelings or express shock.
- Do not be patronizing or judgmental, but ask questions like how can I help.
- Never promise to keep someone’s suicidal feelings a secret, if life is in danger.
- Offer reassurance that things can get better, with appropriate treatment.
- Encouraging the person to avoid alcohol & drugs; can lead to more depression.
- Remove potentially dangerous items from a person’s home, if possible, like knives, razors, drugs, sharp objects, or guns which can be used for suicide.
Florida’s Mental Health and Suicide Prevention Actions
The Florida Governor’s Challenge is an inter-agency team supporting the mission to end veteran suicide “through identifying veterans in need of support and promoting connectedness to tailored resources.” Florida Governor DeSantis signed into law in 2022 a pilot program that provides Veteran Suicide Prevention training for all county Veterans Services Officers, Florida Department of Veterans Affairs veterans claims examiners and others. Florida First Lady Casey DeSantis is a champion of suicide prevention efforts through Florida’s Hope For Healing campaign, which combines the resources and efforts of public and private sectors to better serve those struggling with mental health and substance abuse. The Florida Department of Veterans Affairs and the Fire Watch teamed up to provide the Watch Stander Program, which trains community members and others to learn warning signs of veterans in crisis and how to take prevention actions. Each of us on the Florida Veterans Foundation Board of Directors, a direct-support organization of the Florida Department of Veterans Affairs, has completed it and received certification in the program. I recommend this program to help all community members and all individuals learn the critically important suicide prevention warning signs and appropriate actions.
Help Someone: Contact the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline
Do not hesitate to call a trained suicide prevention counselor at 988. The call is confidential, free, and available 24/7/365. U.S. veterans or service members in crisis can call 988 and then press “1” for the Veterans Crisis Line or text 838255
Practice Safe Firearm Storage, Use Child-Protection Cable Gun Locks, Understand the Scope of the Suicide Problem, and Help those in need!
Photo by author.
* This personal opinion article is meant for general information & educational purposes only and the author strongly recommends that you seek counsel from an attorney for legal advice and your own personal certified weapons trainer for proper guidance about shooting & using YOUR firearms, self-defense, and concealed carry. It should not be relied upon as accurate for all shooters and situations. The author assumes no responsibility for anyone’s use of the information and shall not be liable for any improper or incorrect use of the information or any damages or injuries incurred whatsoever.
© 2023 Col Benjamin Findley. All Rights Reserved. This article may not be reprinted or reproduced in whole or in part by mechanical means, photocopying, electronic reproduction, scanning, or any other means without prior written permission. For copyright information, contact Col. Ben Findley at ColBFF@gmail.com.