Suicide remains the second leading cause of death for veterans under the age of 45 and U.S. veterans are at an increased risk of suicide compared to other people. Amid this backdrop, many groups are working the help veterans heal and find help when in crisis. On Veteran Suicide Awareness Day, NewsNation’s special coverage is aimed at elevating the voices of veterans, their loved ones and caregivers fighting on the frontlines at home.
(NewsNation) — The suicide rate for veterans who served after 9/11 has significantly outpaced the increase among the general population, jumping tenfold from 2006 to 2020, according to new research.
The findings — from an analysis of more than 2.5 million service member records — suggest those who served after the September 11 attacks have faced unique challenges adjusting to life after the military.
If you or someone you know needs help, resources or someone to talk to, you can find it at the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline website or by calling 988 and pressing 1 for veterans. People are available to talk to 24/7.
For more information on resources available to veterans and the groups that participated in NewsNation’s coverage, click here.
“I was just shocked,” said co-author Jeffrey Howard, a public health professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio. “The increase in the suicide rate over that 15-year period was so dramatic that I immediately sent it to my other colleagues.”
Although the uptick is apparent, Howard said the underlying causes and the best strategies to address them are not.
A 2021 report from the Costs of War Project at Brown University identified a wide range of potential explanations for the suicide epidemic among post-9/11 vets.
The study pointed to several factors, some unique to how the post-9/11 wars were fought. Those conflicts saw a rise in the use of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) that led to an increase in traumatic brain injuries (TBI).
Veterans with TBI had suicide rates 56% higher than veterans without TBI and three times higher than the U.S. adult population over the 15-year period studied, Howard found.
The sheer length of the global war on terror — the longest conflict in American history spanning two decades — could be another factor. Post-9/11 vets were more likely to be deployed than their predecessors and twice as likely to have combat experience than earlier veterans, both of which can increase exposure to stress and trauma.
Other features of modern war, like the way conflicts are covered in the media, may also influence veterans’ experiences.
Shannon Krueger, who joined the military at the age of 17 just months before the attack on September 11, said the highly televised, public nature of the conflict impacted those who served.
“We watched a horrible war play out in real-time because of an attack that happened in real-time. That changes the way veterans see it and the way the community sees it,” Krueger said. “This one felt more personal.”
After serving more than 20 years in the armed forces, Krueger now works as a peer outreach specialist for the Captain John D. Mason Veteran Outreach Program at the Medical College of Wisconsin, where she focuses on suicide prevention.
Krueger, who lost her mother to suicide in 2016, is hopeful that the increased attention and funding for mental health care in recent years will make a difference.
“I think that the mental health reckoning is happening right now, and I think [veterans] are part of it,” she said. “There’s an awakening that’s happening.”
The number of veterans receiving mental health care from the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) jumped 90% from 2006 to 2019, according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office. Over that period, the VA’s mental health budget went from $2.4 billion to $8.9 billion.
Last year’s VA budget provided additional funding, $15 billion, for mental health efforts, including suicide prevention. As of January, veterans in acute suicidal crisis can go to any VA or non-VA health care facility for free.
It remains to be seen whether recent efforts will be able to curb the crisis among post-9/11 vets. Both Howard and Krueger said broader societal factors contributing to feelings of loneliness and isolation across the country also have to be addressed.
“Veterans right now are experiencing a range of emotions that happen acutely because of their service but also are accompanied by the things they experienced outside of it and that’s hard to explain to people,” Krueger said.