Learn About Our Walk-In Process

Suicide Among Veterans: Data, Risk Factors, & Prevention Strategies

Written by The Recovery Village

& Medically Reviewed by Dr. Kevin Wandler, MD

Medically Reviewed

Up to Date

This article was reviewed by a medical professional to guarantee the delivery of accurate and up-to- date information. View our research policy.

Editorial Policy

Last Updated - 06/30/2024

View our editorial policy
If you or a loved one is struggling with addiction, help is available. Speak with a Recovery Advocate by calling 561-340-7269 now.

Updated 06/30/2024

Key Takeaways

  • In 2021, there were 6,392 reported veteran suicides, an 11.6% increase from the previous year, highlighting the elevated risk of suicide among veterans compared to civilians.
  • Female veterans and males aged 18 to 34 have particularly high suicide rates, with firearm injuries accounting for nearly 70% of veteran suicides.
  • Veterans face unique challenges, such as PTSD, depression, and substance misuse, which are strongly linked to suicidal behavior.
  • Social isolation is a significant factor contributing to veteran suicide, with loneliness increasing the risk for suicidal ideation.
  • Comprehensive prevention strategies include lethal means safety, enhanced crisis care, community-based interventions, and public awareness campaigns.
  • Timely access to mental health services and the integration of care are crucial in preventing veteran suicide.
  • Peer support programs leveraging shared experiences among veterans are vital for preventing feelings of isolation and despair.
  • Public awareness campaigns are key in destigmatizing mental health issues and promoting resources for suicide prevention.
  • The economic and emotional aftermath of veteran suicide on families and communities is profound, necessitating a whole-of-nation approach to prevention.

Suicide Among Veterans: Data, Risk Factors, & Prevention Strategies

Statistical Overview of Veteran Suicide Rates

Understanding the prevalence of suicide among veterans is crucial for addressing this critical issue. Here are key statistics:

  • 2021 Data: There were 6,392 reported veteran suicides, marking an increase from the previous year. This represents an 11.6% rise in the age- and sex-adjusted suicide rate among veterans, compared to a 4.5% increase among the non-veteran US adult population during the same period.
  • Risk Comparison: Between 2017 and 2020, veteran suicide rates were estimated to be 1.57 to 1.66 times higher than those of non-veterans, after adjusting for age and sex differences.
  • Trends: Despite the overall increase, a VA report indicates a decrease in veteran suicide deaths and rates between 2019 and 2020.
  • Demographics: The highest suicide rates are found in males aged 18 to 34, but the highest number of suicides occurs in male veterans aged 55 and older.
  • Method: Nearly 70% of veteran suicides are the result of firearm injuries, a higher percentage than non-veteran adult suicide deaths.
  • Goals: The VA aims to reduce the veteran suicide rate by 10% from 2019 to 2024, with a longer-term goal of a 3% annual decrease by 2028 through enhanced community intervention programs and training.

These statistics underscore the need for targeted prevention strategies and support systems tailored to the veteran community. For immediate support, veterans in crisis can contact the Veterans Crisis Line by calling 988 and pressing 1. More detailed information can be found on the VA’s Suicide Prevention website.

Analyzing Veteran Suicide Rates by Age and Gender

The suicide rates among veterans reveal concerning trends, particularly when analyzed by age and gender:

  • 2021 Data: According to the 2023 National Veteran Suicide Prevention Annual Report, there were 6,392 veteran suicides, with the age- and sex-adjusted suicide rate among veterans rising by 11.6%, compared to a 4.5% increase among non-veteran US adults.
  • Female Veterans: This report shows the age-adjusted suicide rate for female veterans in 2021 was 166.1% higher than that for non-veteran US adult women, highlighting the acute vulnerability of female veterans.
  • Critical Transition Period: The period immediately following military service is critical, with evidence suggesting increased suicide risk during this phase.

These data points emphasize the complexity of veteran suicide and the need for targeted prevention efforts that address the specific challenges faced by different subgroups within the veteran community.

Comparing Veteran and General Population Suicide Rates

Veteran suicide rates are significantly higher when compared to the general US population:

  • 2017-2020 Data: Veteran suicide rates were approximately 1.57 to 1.66 times greater than those of nonveterans, after adjusting for age and sex.
  • 2020 Data: The age- and sex-adjusted suicide rate among veterans was 57.3% higher than the rate among non-veteran US adults.
  • Long-Term Trends: From 2001 to 2018, veteran suicide deaths consistently outpaced those of non-veteran US adults, despite a recent decline during 2019 and 2020.
  • Mental Health Conditions: Veterans are more likely to have preexisting mental health conditions, such as PTSD and depression, which are strongly linked to suicidal behavior.
  • COVID-19 Impact: The pandemic has further complicated the mental health landscape, with some veterans developing new-onset suicidal ideation and planning.

Veterans represent a disproportionate share of suicides in the US. Although they make up only 7.6% of the population, nearly 14% of all adult suicides in the country are among veterans. These statistics highlight the urgent need for targeted suicide prevention efforts within the veteran community.

For an in-depth understanding of these statistics, the JAMA Network Open and the National Veteran Suicide Prevention Annual Report provide comprehensive analyses of suicide mortality among veterans compared to non-veteran US adults.

Risk Factors of Veteran Suicide

Veterans face unique challenges that elevate their risk for suicide. Research highlights several key factors:

  • Psychiatric Disorders: Veterans experience higher rates of disorders linked to suicidal thoughts and behaviors (STBs), such as PTSD, major depressive disorder, and alcohol use disorder. These conditions can be exacerbated by adverse childhood experiences, combat exposure, loneliness, and poor physical health, contributing to emotional dysregulation and increased stress susceptibility.
  • COVID-19 Pandemic: During the pandemic, a significant portion of veterans developed new-onset suicidal ideation and planning, underscoring their persistent vulnerability despite broader trends of declining suicide rates among adults.
  • Complex Interplay of Factors: There is no single cause of suicide among veterans; it results from a complex interplay of psychological, social, and biological factors.

The Role of PTSD

PTSD significantly impacts veteran mental health and is directly correlated to suicidal behaviors:

  • Trauma and Suicide Risk: Research from the PTSD: National Center for PTSD indicates that experiences of trauma, including childhood abuse, can substantially increase the risk of suicide.
  • Mixed Findings: Some studies report higher incidences of suicidal ideation and attempts among veterans with PTSD, while others suggest no increased risk or even lower risk. This underscores the need for a nuanced understanding of PTSD’s role in veteran suicide.
  • Comprehensive Assessments: The Rocky Mountain Mental Illness Research, Education and Clinical Center for Veteran Suicide Prevention emphasizes the importance of comprehensive assessments and diagnoses of PTSD, which is often associated with other mental health issues like depression and substance use disorders (SUDs).

Substance Abuse

Substance use disorders (SUDs) present a significant concern for veterans:

  • Co-occurring Disorders: Veterans with SUDs often have co-occurring mental health disorders such as PTSD, depression, and anxiety, increasing their suicide risk.
  • Alcohol Misuse: Many veterans entering treatment programs report alcohol as their most frequently misused substance, nearly double the rate of the general population.
  • Prescription Drug Misuse: The misuse of prescription drugs, particularly opioids for pain management, is notable among veterans. Integrating treatment for SUDs and PTSD can lead to better substance use outcomes, although possibly less improvement in PTSD symptoms.
  • Interdisciplinary Management: Addressing chronic pain with interdisciplinary management is crucial to reducing long-term opioid therapy reliance and supporting rehabilitation.

Social Isolation

Social isolation significantly contributes to suicide risk among veterans:

  • Increased Risk: Research says veterans experiencing loneliness are at an increased risk for suicidal ideation over time. The absence of social connections can exacerbate feelings of despair and hopelessness, critical predictors of suicidal behavior.
  • Contributing Factors: Difficulty reintegrating into civilian life, the loss of the close-knit military community, and the stigma associated with seeking help for mental health issues contribute to social isolation. Physical disabilities and psychological conditions like PTSD can further isolate veterans.
  • Interventions: Interventions aimed at reducing social isolation include community engagement programs, peer support groups, and accessible mental health services. The VA’s National Strategy for Preventing Veteran Suicide emphasizes the importance of social connectedness as a protective factor against suicide.

The VA’s National Strategy for Preventing Veteran Suicide emphasizes the importance of social connectedness as a protective factor against suicide. Veterans represent a disproportionate share of suicides in the US. Although they make up only 7.6% of the population, nearly 14% of all adult suicides in the country are among veterans. These statistics highlight the urgent need for targeted suicide prevention efforts within the veteran community. 

For an in-depth understanding of these statistics, the JAMA Network Open and the National Veteran Suicide Prevention Annual Report provide comprehensive analyses of suicide mortality among veterans compared to non-veteran US adults.

Strategies to Prevent Veteran Suicide

The prevention of veteran suicide is a complex and multifaceted issue that requires coordinated efforts across various sectors. According to the 2023 National Veteran Suicide Prevention Annual Report, there has been an increase in veteran suicides, emphasizing the need for comprehensive prevention strategies. The Department of Veterans Affairs and other agencies have identified several priority goals to address this crisis.

  • Lethal Means Safety: Improving safety around lethal means is critical. This includes measures to control access to firearms and other methods of self-harm.
  • Enhanced Crisis Care: Providing timely and effective crisis care and facilitating smooth transitions between care settings can help veterans in acute distress.
  • Community-Based Interventions: Engaging with community resources to support veterans can lead to a holistic approach to suicide prevention, including peer support and mental health services.
  • Emergency Care Policies: Policies such as free emergency suicide prevention care, which has assisted nearly 50,000 veterans, play a vital role in immediate intervention.
  • Innovation and Research: Initiatives like Mission Daybreak encourage the development of novel strategies through national challenges and research.
  • Public Awareness: Raising awareness among service members, veterans, and their families about the signs of suicide risk and available support services is crucial.
  • Training for Health Care Providers: Educating health care providers and crisis responders to recognize and respond to suicide risk effectively.

These strategies, as outlined by the White House and Veterans Affairs, aim to create a safety net for veterans by promoting early identification of risk, improving access to care, and ensuring the effectiveness of suicide prevention programs.

Mental Health Services and Preventing Veteran Suicide

Effective mental health services play a crucial role in preventing veteran suicide. In 2023, nearly 50,000 veterans received emergency suicide prevention care through a new Department of Veterans Affairs program, underscoring the urgent need for timely interventions. Suicide prevention remains the VA’s top clinical priority, emphasizing the importance of early support despite the complex array of factors contributing to suicidal behavior among veterans.

VA’s Focus on Suicide Prevention

The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) is committed to addressing the heightened suicide risk among veterans. In 2021, there was an 11.6% increase in the age- and sex-adjusted suicide rate among veterans, highlighting the persistent challenges. The VA’s National Strategy for Preventing Veteran Suicide seeks to unify prevention efforts across diverse settings, integrating comprehensive mental health services with community support initiatives.

Statistics and Challenges

Veterans face a significantly elevated risk of suicide compared to the general population, necessitating tailored interventions and support mechanisms. Understanding these statistics underscores the critical need for effective suicide prevention strategies and robust mental health services tailored to veterans’ unique experiences.

Advocacy for Comprehensive Support

Advocacy organizations like the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention  stress the importance of culturally relevant care and evidence-based interventions to mitigate suicide risk among veterans. Comprehensive support frameworks, including funding for VA’s suicide prevention outreach budget, mental health services, and crisis intervention, are essential in reducing suicide rates and ensuring veterans receive the support they need.

Peer Support Programs: Reducing Veteran Suicide Rates

Peer support programs are increasingly recognized as vital in reducing veteran suicide rates by fostering solidarity and understanding among veterans, according to a study. These programs leverage shared experiences to provide critical emotional support and camaraderie, addressing feelings of isolation that can contribute to suicidal thoughts. The VA has recognized these programs’ value, announcing the availability of grants to organizations providing these services, including peer support.

Role of Peer Support Programs

Peer support programs play a pivotal role in complementing clinical interventions by offering veterans a supportive network that understands their challenges firsthand. From structured support groups to informal networks, these programs provide essential services like mental health screenings and emergency assistance, tailored to veterans’ specific needs.

Effectiveness and Implementation

Community-based peer support efforts are integral to broader suicide prevention strategies, enhancing veterans’ access to personalized care and support. Advocacy efforts, such as those by the American Legion, underscore the importance of robust funding for VA peer support initiatives and highlight the positive impact of these programs on veteran mental health.

Example Grant Program

The Staff Sergeant Parker Gordon Fox Suicide Prevention Grant Program exemplifies financial support for organizations dedicated to suicide prevention among veterans and their families. These initiatives bridge gaps in existing healthcare systems, ensuring veterans receive compassionate and effective support from peers who understand their unique challenges.

Public Awareness Campaigns: Veteran Suicide Prevention

Public awareness campaigns play a pivotal role in educating communities about veteran suicide prevention, reducing stigma, and promoting supportive behaviors. The National Strategy for Preventing Veteran Suicide outlines a comprehensive approach that includes public awareness as a key component. These campaigns empower individuals to recognize suicide risk factors and access available resources, fostering a supportive environment for veterans in need.

Importance of Public Awareness

Increasing public awareness about veteran suicide prevention is crucial in addressing this complex issue. By destigmatizing mental health challenges and encouraging community involvement, these campaigns facilitate early intervention and support for veterans experiencing crisis.

Components of Awareness Campaigns

Effective awareness campaigns educate the public about suicide warning signs and emphasize the importance of seeking help. Initiatives like the VA’s annual report, ‘Anchors of Hope,’ and community-focused models encourage local leadership and engagement in suicide prevention efforts, empowering communities to take proactive steps in supporting veterans.

Empowering Communities

Programs such as the VA S.A.V.E. Suicide Prevention Training and Governor’s and Mayor’s Challenges and local challenges encourage community members to play an active role in preventing veteran suicide. These initiatives promote collaboration across sectors and ensure veterans receive timely, compassionate care within supportive communities.

Collaborative efforts across healthcare, community, and public sectors are essential in preventing veteran suicide. By fostering informed communities and supportive environments, public awareness campaigns contribute significantly to reducing suicide rates among veterans, ensuring they receive the compassionate support they deserve.

The Ripple Effects of Veteran Suicide on Families and Communities

The impact of veteran suicide is profound and extends beyond the individual, affecting families and communities in significant ways. As suicide rates among service members continue to rise, the data indicates this as a public health crisis becomes increasingly urgent. The emotional aftermath of a veteran’s suicide leaves families grappling with intense grief and often feeling isolated, exacerbated by societal stigma and a lack of open dialogue about suicide. Organizations like the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention are at the forefront of advocating for strategies tailored to the veteran community, aiming to save lives and provide hope to those affected by this devastating issue.

Emotional Aftermath of Veteran Suicide on Families

  • Complex Emotional Responses:
    • Intense Grief: Families experience profound sadness and loss, often struggling to cope with the sudden and unexpected death of their loved one. 
    • Guilt and Confusion: Many family members question if they could have done more to prevent the suicide, leading to feelings of guilt and confusion.
    • Anger and Frustration: Emotions may range from anger towards the veteran for leaving them to frustration over not understanding the reasons behind the suicide.
    • Isolation and Stigma: Stigma surrounding suicide can isolate families, making it difficult to seek support or talk openly about their experiences, as highlighted by NAMI.
  • Support Needs:
    • Counseling Services: The research highlights the critical need for tailored support systems to help families navigate the complex bereavement process.
    • Peer Support Groups: Connecting with others who have experienced similar losses can provide comfort and understanding.
    • Educational Resources: Information on suicide prevention, coping strategies, and managing grief from the Veterans Affairs can empower families to support each other and prevent further tragedies.

Economic Consequences of Veteran Suicide

  • Immediate Financial Burdens:
    • Lost Income: Sudden economic downturns can precipitate crises that may lead to suicide among vulnerable populations, including veterans. The death of a veteran who was the primary earner can lead to financial instability for surviving family members.
    • Funeral Expenses: Costs associated with arranging a funeral and burial can be substantial, which can result in a significant economic burden.
  • Long-Term Economic Impact:
    • Reduced Economic Activity: Communities may experience a decline in economic productivity or economic uncertainty as a result of the veteran’s death. 
    • Increased Healthcare Costs: Higher demand for mental health services, emergency response, and other social support systems can strain community resources.
  • Policy Implications:
    • Stable Economic Conditions: Ensuring stable economic conditions can help mitigate suicide risks among veterans and their families.
    • Economic Policies: Implementing policies that support economic stability and resilience can reduce financial stressors that contribute to suicide risk.

Support and Advocacy Efforts

  • Advocacy Initiatives:
    • Enhanced Mental Health Services: Advocacy organizations push for improved access to mental health care that addresses the unique needs of veterans and their families.
    • Secure Firearms Storage: Promoting safe storage practices to reduce access to lethal means during times of crisis.
    • Culturally Relevant Care: Providing culturally sensitive mental health services that respect the experiences and backgrounds of veterans and their families.
  • Strategies for Prevention:
    • Comprehensive Approaches: Supporting initiatives that take a holistic approach to suicide prevention, including community-based interventions and national awareness campaigns.
    • Empowerment Through Education: Educating communities about suicide risk factors, warning signs, and available resources empowers individuals to take proactive steps in supporting veterans and preventing suicides.

Addiction Treatment and Mental Health Care: The Recovery Village at Baptist Health

The Recovery Village at Baptist Health is an industry-leading treatment provider for addiction and co-occurring mental health disorders. Our clinicians are specially trained in trauma-informed care, military culture and treating veteran-specific addiction and mental health needs. We’re also proud members of the VA Community Care Network, so we can accept VA health benefits as payment at no cost to the veteran.

If you’re a veteran struggling with alcohol or drug addiction, our physician-led, private rehab program could be your path to recovery. Call us today and request a specialized Veteran Advocate to assist you.