November 20, 2011

What We Know, and Don't

The effect of suicide by military service members and veterans is far greater than the numbers can convey. Each case represents, first and foremost, a tragic loss for the families, units and communities. There are also repercussions for public health and national security.

Our country lost 295 active duty service members to suicide in 2010. Because the military services count and examine suicide, we know the proportion who died during or after deployment. We know that only in the Army are people who have been deployed more likely to kill themselves. We know the means by which service members take their own lives: in 2010, 48 percent with a personally owned firearm, 14 percent a military firearm, and 25 percent by hanging. We know whether these individuals were experiencing financial, legal or relationship crisis. What we do not yet know is how to stop these suicides, but knowing who they were and what circumstances they faced is a critical first step.

Veteran suicides are a different matter. The V.A. estimates that 18 veterans die by their own hand every day, but this is not definitive. Because veterans are civilians and thus not required to report on themselves, we know little about them. We do not count veterans’ suicides by which service they were in, whether they deployed, or to what war. We do not know whether the veterans with mental health challenges -- especially those not enrolled with the V.A. -- have mental health wounds from the current or earlier wars, or whether the struggles are independent of their military service. When veterans die by suicide, we, as a nation, are at a complete loss to understand who they were or why they chose to end their lives. Until we do, we remain unable to address the problem.

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