The suicide rate among U.S. veterans may be much higher than estimated by state and national data, according to a study that sheds new light on what experts say is an urgent crisis.
The study, conducted by the national nonprofit America’s Warrior Partnership (AWP) in cooperation with the Department of Defense and the University of Alabama, shows that states might be undercounting veterans’ deaths at an error rate of 25 percent.
AWP had data from eight states which committed to share information on residents’ deaths. According to the research, in the states examined—including Alabama, Florida, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, and Oregon—the daily rate of suicide among former service members was 1.37 times greater than previously reported by the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).
If the eight states collectively represented the national rate, the veteran suicide rate would be 2.4 times greater than previously reported by the VA, according to the study. That means that on average 44 former service member died by suicide every day between 2014 and 2018.
M. David Rudd, a veteran and professor of psychology at the University of Memphis, told Newsweek that suicide “is the single most significant health concern among veterans today.”
“If you go back to the Vietnam war, the most significant health concern at the time was Agent Orange. Now it’s suicide.”
According to official data, over 30,000 veterans have died by suicide between September 2001 and 2019—four times more than the number of those who died in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan.
According to the 2022 VA report on veterans’ suicide rate in the U.S., in 2020, there were a total of 6,146 veteran suicides, for an average 16.8 per day. Despite the staggering number, there were 343 fewer veteran suicides than the previous year.
As well as analyzing veterans’ cause of death and their health, AWP studied veterans’ history of involvement with law enforcement—if any—and financial information like their credit score, or whether they were refused a loan for a home. These factors, the organization said, were correlated to how “hopeful” veterans felt about their lives.
Jim Lorraine, a veteran and president of America’s Warrior Partnership, told Newsweek that hopelessness correlated to a higher suicide rate “and we believe that financial instability is contributing holistically to a hopelessness among veterans—as well as American people.”
“What we’re seeing is that it’s not just food insecurity or homelessness, what it comes down to is financial instability. It’s big,” he added. “If a veteran fails to pay a credit card bill, their interest rates go up to 25 percent, and then their monthly bill the next month might be higher than they can afford.”
While veterans can have other problems—from post-traumatic stress disorder to lingering injury—improving their quality of life might reduce their likelihood of taking their own life.
But while many of these services are provided by the government and groups like America’s Warrior Partnership, one crucial issue remains getting veterans to ask for help when they need it.
A Difficult Transition
Rudd, who founded the Rudd Institute for Veteran/Military Suicide Prevention in Memphis, said that, though reasons are unique and different for each person, the transition from military to civilian life can be very challenging for some veterans.
“It’s a unique transition, different from any other kind of transition in life,” he said. “Oftentimes when individuals leave that very structured system with a very clearly identified purpose and mission, they lose that sense of purpose and that support structure.”
Lorraine compares it to leaving school for civilians. “You’re around your friends and family and then you go away. And now you’re on your own.”
“In the military, if I walk into a room of other military people, I can look around and everybody has a uniform on, I know everything about them, I know their names, I know their ranks from their uniforms, without even asking,” Lorraine said.
“Now I become a civilian and I go out into a room of my colleagues who are all wearing business casual attire and I have to talk to them and figure out who they are. You just don’t know where you fit.”
“And that’s on top of anything that you have maybe done or seen in the military combat experience,” retired Navy SEAL Dave Berkenfield told Newsweek.
“Maybe you’re injured. Maybe you have blast injuries, maybe you’ve lost friends or teammates or maybe there was sexual trauma at one point,” he added. “That’s on top of the greater issues we’re seeing in everyday America.”
Berkenfield spent 25 years in special operations, including in Afghanistan and Iraq, during his service in the Navy, which started in the 1990s. He lost an older brother and several friends to suicide, which led him to become an advocate for suicide prevention among veterans.
“We are a small percentage of the actual population, but we bear a pretty significant percentage of what would be the same challenges that the rest of the population has,” Berkenfield said.
“Being disconnected from our family, health challenges, traumatic events—things that are sort of defined as the significant transitional issues seem to trigger some of the suicide ideation that we see in veterans.”
Less than 1 percent of the American population ends up serving in the military in the course of their lives.
Is Enough Support Available for Veterans?
“I’d argue there’s not enough support or interventions that are effective,” Rudd said. “Part of the problem is that there are a number of interventions which are helpful for people, but not enough clinicians are doing those—particularly in rural areas.”
In these areas access to health care is not as immediate as it can be in highly populated urban areas. According to America’s Warrior Partnership, 40 percent of veterans live in rural areas.
“I think support starts locally, and we can do a better job at improving these services,” Lorraine said. “There’s 17 and a half million veterans right now living in the U.S., and I don’t see a reason why they shouldn’t have access to services that help them improve their quality of life.”
But Rudd said that remote services can go far in helping veterans struggling with their mental health.
“We just did a study over the last couple of years that showed that telehealth delivery was actually as effective—actually a little bit more effective—than face to face delivery for veterans at suicide risk,” he said. “But the availability of that is pretty limited, and that’s why the VA is making that alternative available.”
“I think part of the challenge is that very few people really understand what are the demands of serving in the military and then what are the stressors when you transition out of the military back into civilian life—and that’s part of the problem,” Rudd said.
“And then it’s compounded by stigma, which is a problem in the general U.S. population, with almost one half of all Americans thinking that seeking therapy is a sign of weakness. That number is almost two thirds in the general population.”
Rudd thinks that more needs to be done to facilitate transition from active duty back into civilian life for veterans, as well as improving access to care and eliminating stigma around mental health.
For Lorraine there isn’t a lack of support for veterans—but the bureaucracy around the many support programs available “is really hard to navigate.”
“I would say for the VA and the government in general to step back and take a holistic view of all the programs and say, how do we integrate them, how do we make it easier to access?” he said. “We need to reach out to veterans and build a relationship with them before they even had the thought of taking their life. And then connecting them to the resources that help them move forward.”
“We’re at a transition point as a nation where we want to support our veterans,” Berkenfield said. “Everybody understands that we’ve been using these men and women up for 20 years and now they’re coming back and they need some help,” he added.
“But I do think that there’s some growth that needs to happen programmatically within the VA, the hospital, and the mental health systems.”
As of January 17, veterans in an “acute suicidal crisis” can receive free emergency mental health care—including inpatient care up to 30 days and outpatient care for up to 90 days—with any VA or non-VA service providers, according to a new VA program.
The most important thing to prevent veterans’ suicide, Berkenfield said, is “having these national conversations about it.”
“We’re going to solve this crisis not in D.C., not in boardrooms, but we’re going to solve it one veteran at a time, by one veteran asking for help and realizing it’s okay, by one family member recognizing that their veteran might need some support, by one teammate making that one call or sending that one text.”
Newsweek contacted the VA by email in late August but did not receive comment back by the time of publication.
If you, or a veteran you know, are having thoughts of suicide, help is available 24 hours a day. Call 1-800-273-8255, text 838255, or visit https://www.veteranscrisisline.net/get-help/chat to connect with a Veteran Crisis Line Responder.