On the Suicide Rate Among Veterans

Every suicide is a tragedy, and the nation is right to be concerned for the welfare of its veterans. As a society, we should absolutely do all that we can to treat both the visible and invisible wounds of war. I was curious, however, when I read the claim that 22 veterans per day take their own lives. That’s over 8000 veteran suicides per year. In 2012, an alarming 349 service member took their own lives. How is it possible that over 8000 veterans also did so? Could that number possibly be correct?

The number is an estimate reported in the Veterans Administration’s 2012 study on suicide. You can read the study here: Suicide Data Report 2012 .

I am not a statistician, but it appears to me that the VA’s number is a reasonable estimate based on the available evidence and the report’s analytical method. So, yes, as far as I can tell the number is accurate, but it needs context.

In 2010, the Veterans Administration says that there were over 23 million living veterans – 23,031,892, to be precise.  Of those,

  • 2,120,409 served in the World War II era (1941-46)
  • 2,531,471 served in the Korean Conflict era (1950-55)
  • 7,695,836 served in Vietnam Conflict era (1964-1975)
  • 5,599,420 served in the Gulf War Conflict era (1990-TBD)
  • 5,913,971 served outside of the identified conflict eras

The numbers don’t total 23,031,892 because some veterans served in more than one era. And note that the VA categorizes veterans by eras, not actual combat. For example, of the 7 million plus Vietnam era veterans, some never saw Vietnam or actual combat. We maintained over a quarter of a million troops in Europe throughout the Cold War. You can find more information about the veteran population from the Veterans Administration.

The VA’s suicide study indicates that more than 69% of all Veteran suicides were among those over the age of 50. The distribution of all veteran suicides by age is shown in the following table.

29 years and younger 6.0%
30 – 39 years 9.1%
40 – 49 years 15.6%
50 – 59 years 20.0%
60 – 69 years 16.5%
70 – 79 years 18.6%
80 years and older 14.2%

Suicide Data Report 2012, page 22

This would suggest that most veteran suicides occur among veterans of earlier eras. In fact, the suicide rate among veterans has not changed substantially since before the Global War on Terrorism began in 2001. The rate in 1999 was estimated to be 20 per day. In 2007, the rate was estimated to be 18 per day.

Veteran Suicide Rate by Year
Veteran Suicide Rate by Year, Suicide Data Report 2012, page 18

The study also notes that the number of suicides among all Americans has risen during this period, and the veteran’s percentage of all U.S. suicides has decreased.

While the numbers of Veterans who die from suicide each day has remained relatively stable over the past 12 years (varying from 18 -22 per day), the percentage of people who die by suicide in America who are Veterans has decreased slightly. At the same time, the number of Americans who die by suicide each day has increased. (Suicide Data Report 2012, page 52)

With regard to the age distribution, the study also notes that military service was much more prevalent in previous generations. A relatively high percentage of American males served in uniform during World War II and the Cold War draft era. Consequently, veteran status tends to be higher among older American men. This, significantly, is also the group with the highest incidence of suicide regardless of veteran status.

It is important to note that both Veteran populations and those who die by suicide are significantly more likely to be male. According to data provided by the United States Census Bureau, 93% of all Veterans are male and 21% of all males aged 18 years and older have history of U.S. military service. Further, history of U.S. military service increases with age, with the highest percentage of Veterans aged 55 years and older. . . . It is therefore possible that epidemiologic characteristic of suicide in the general population (i.e. higher rates of suicide among older adult males) may contribute to a comparatively high prevalence of Veterans among those who die from suicide.  (Suicide Data Report 2012, page 16)

In other words, the veteran population tends to be older and male, and suicide rates are highest overall among older males. When I attended suicide prevention training at the Menninger Clinic in the early 1990s, I learned that there is a high correlation in older males between suicide and the loss of a spouse, the presence of a life-threatening disease or other quality-of-late-life issues.

Family relationship issues also play a significant role factor in active-duty suicides. There is not, however, a high correlation between combat service and suicide rates among active service members. Among actual combat veterans, individual experiences and reactions vary widely.

None of this disputes the fact that many veterans suffer, sometimes for decades, from the hidden wounds of emotional trauma and moral injury. It is important, however, to put veteran suicides in context. The degree to which combat experience, or even military service, plays a role in suicide is not clear. For some veterans, undoubtedly, combat trauma is an extremely significant factor in their taking their own lives. Many – perhaps most – veterans, however, simply share the broader human condition that sometimes leads to despair. All those with wounded spirits deserve our compassion and help. In offering our help, though, it’s best not to jump to conclusions about how or why our veterans are suffering.

UPDATE: The VA has published a 2014 update to the suicide data report.

One thought on “On the Suicide Rate Among Veterans”

  1. A very important subject. I’ve enjoyed scanning your blog and would like you to consider writing an article for the next issue of Curtana: Sword of Mercy, a modest online journal that I edit at http://www.justwar101 dot com. You can drop me a note at chaplainstroud at gmail.


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