January 28, 2020

IntelBrief: The Crisis of Rising Suicide Rates Among U.S. Military Veterans

5,000 small U.S. flags representing suicides of active and veteran members of the military line the National Mall in Washington. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin).
  • On the 45,390 Americans who committed suicide in 2019, 6139 were United States military veterans – about 13.5 percent.
  • In 2017, more than 124 Americans killed themselves every day, with 16 veterans among them – approximately 12.9 percent of daily suicides.
  • The suicide rate for veterans, and for Americans in general, continues to increase, with public health officials struggling to formulate a coherent response.
  • The military’s culture of toughness and self-sufficiency, the immediacy and permanence of available handguns, as well as the stigma associated with and availability of mental health support, are just some of the many factors leading to this trend.


The military espouses a culture of toughness, which in many cases discourages military service members from seeking the mental health assistance they need. A strong ethos of self-sufficiency and the so-called ‘warrior mentality’ largely overshadow the idea of seeking help – especially mental health support which embodies its own set of deep stigmas and stereotypes. This makes it particularly difficult for service members to seek help from the institution or social service organizations outside of it.  

The overall rate of suicide in the United States is climbing, and within that population, the subpopulation of veterans committing suicide remains exceptionally high. According to the 2019 National Veteran Suicide Prevention Annual Report, an astonishing 45,390 Americans killed themselves in 2019; of these, 6,139 were veterans, a whopping 13.5 percent. In comparison, the percentage of college students who commit suicide annually is 2.4 percent. Overall in 2018, there were 327 million people in the United States, with 18 million, or 5.5 percent having served in the military. The largest group of U.S. veterans is now the Gulf-War veterans, surpassing World War II veterans. The most significant overall number of suicides among veterans comes from the 55-74 age range, which is also the largest total group in terms of the number of veterans. However, the most substantial rate of suicide among veterans by percentage is those veterans between 18-34 years of age, with a suicide rate of 44.5 per 100,000 veterans. Between 2005 and 2016, the suicide rate for veterans rose 80 percent, an increase that is difficult to fathom.

Every day in the United States, more than 124 people kill themselves, with 16 of them being veterans. A gun was used in these veteran suicides at a significantly higher rate than in the overall U.S. suicide rate. A staggering 69% of veterans who killed themselves used a firearm; overall, the percentage of those who used a firearm to end their life was 48%. Having ready access to a gun is a factor in suicide, with the immediacy and permanency of using a weapon markedly different than other kinds of tools used for self-harm. For someone experiencing suicidal ideations, the presence of an accessible firearm presents a severe risk. In part, these are the unseen consequences of a nation at continuous war, the invisible wounds that result from multiple combat deployments as part of the ill-defined and seemingly endless Global War on Terrorism, which has extracted a human toll on soldiers, sailors, marines, airmen, and all of those who support them.

Preventing suicides, in the general U.S. population and the veterans’ subpopulation must be a national priority. The rising trend cuts across gender and age groups. It is incumbent upon national leaders to increase outreach, funding, and programs to address why so many Americans are committing suicide. Because the issue of suicide is so personal, and the drivers of such a desperate act so individual, government programs that lack evidence-based research are ill-suited for the challenge. Using federal funding to empower local efforts that are more tailored to specific populations could be a more practical approach. There is no lack of publicity for the rising rate of suicide overall in the U.S. and among the veteran population, yet the numbers continue to rise. The United States Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), through its Veterans Health Administration, is working with many groups to address the crisis. 

The VA has established a hotline for veterans in crisis to call, 1-800-273-8255, or people can text at 838255. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255, and 1-800-799-4889 for those needing TTY services. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is connected to the VA’s veteran hotline.


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