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Veterans are suffering from mental illness at an alarming rate with young, male veterans most at risk

While the suicide rate among veterans has gone down, it’s still significantly higher than the general population.


At the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918, a ceasefire was called between the Allied Forces and Germany. That’s the origin of the Nov. 11 date for Veterans Day. It was then called Armistice Day, and President Woodrow Wilson declared it a time to honor those who died in what was called the “war to end all wars.”

World War I wasn’t the last war; millions of Americans have served in many wars since. But it did mark the beginning of a recognition that soldiers were returning home from battle with debilitating symptoms that weren’t only physical but psychological as well.

Soldiers had coined the term “shell shock” for a condition that caused a range of symptoms, from shaking, headaches, dizziness, confusion, memory loss and sleep disorders. Doctors thought the condition may be caused by proximity to an explosion, but soon they discovered that some soldiers presented with the same symptoms who were not near explosives.


A snapshot of the most recent data shows the veteran suicide rate is down from 2020, but it has generally been on the rise since 2011 and is still significantly higher than the rate for the general population. The percentage of veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental health issues is also higher than that of the rest of the United States.

While there has been a consistent flow of legislation over the past 25 years to support veterans who need mental health support, experts say there is quite a bit that still needs to be done to “plug the holes” where support is lacking. Most of it is about easing the restrictions on the kind of mental health support veterans can access and where.


More tours of duty may increase the risk of mental health issues

As a group, veterans have significantly higher rates of some mental illnesses than nonveterans, a reflection of the enduring physical and psychological traumas of war.

That stress can spillover into all aspects of their life, impairing sleep, interfering with concentration, and harming relationships with friends and family.

PTSD is especially common after deployment, but rates vary among wars, impacting as many as:


Those most at risk for suicide: young, male veterans

Age was also a factor: Younger veterans, who include veterans who’ve more recently transitioned to civilian life, generally have higher rates of suicide than other age groups, at more than 50 deaths per 100,000 people annually.

There has been a promising trend downward in suicide rates starting in 2019, with a 7 percent decrease in the adjusted suicide rate — or 399 fewer deaths than the year before.

Veterans who reported a decrease in suicidal thoughts may have been better able to get more support during the pandemic by using virtual technology like FaceTime or Zoom, Brandon Nichter, the study’s lead author, told Bill Hathaway for Yale News.

“These individuals tended to have a history of mental illness including post-traumatic stress disorder, substance use problems, or a history of past suicide attempts,” Hathaway wrote. Veterans who’d previously been infected with covid were more than twice as likely to report suicidal ideation in the past year.


Democrats and Republicans are generally aligned when it comes to veteran mental health support

There has been quite a bit of bipartisan legislation to improve services for veterans with mental health issues, with some notable success, said a House Veterans Affairs Committee staffer, noting the lower suicide rate among veterans in 2020 (the most recent data).

“Still,” the staffer told Grid, “no one is taking a victory lap when even one veteran dies by suicide or struggling with mental health — there is so much more to do to help veterans thrive.”

The most recent legislation to make it through includes:

  • Sgt. Ketchum Rural Veterans Mental Health Act, which provides more access to mental health services for veterans in rural areas
  • Solid Start Act, which makes permanent a new VA program to proactively reach out to new veterans during the stressful first year after separation from active duty
  • Commander John Scott Hannon Veterans Mental Health Care Improvement Act, which increased VA mental healthcare services and research
  • Veterans’ COMPACT Act, which will make emergency suicidal stabilization care free for veterans in crisis wherever they seek help.

The committee staffer said she has been pleased with how much both parties in the House and Senate Committees on Veterans Affairs are on the same page when it comes to veteran mental health legislation. And they are definitely aligned on looking at mental health as part of a larger “veteran health portfolio” that includes housing, jobs and support when transitioning to civilian life.

But, she adds, while they all have the same goal, sometimes they differ on how to get there.

“One example: safer storage of firearms. We know that putting time and distance between someone in crisis and firearms could lower the suicide rate tomorrow. We have legislation to expand what the VA is doing to promote safe storage of firearms in the veteran community. But we don’t have the support of colleagues across the aisle on those efforts.”

As for whether any other legislation on veteran mental health will make it into law this year, a legislative associate with the American Legion, an organization that lobbies for veterans’ rights, said it’s a strong maybe, but there’s a lot of competition to get anything on the floor for a vote these days.


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