In 2005, the national suicide rate for veterans was about 29 per 100,000. It increased to about 34 per 100,000 in 2011. The civilian rate grew, as well. On average, about one out of five suicides is a veteran.
Nailing down the reason why military service members die by suicide is difficult. A common assumption is that soldiers have been traumatized by combat experience or repeated deployments.
But a recent study funded by the Department of Defense shows that combat deployment didn’t have a significant impact on suicide risk. Instead, mental illnesses and alcohol and drug abuse were more common suicide indicators.
Trying to understand why a person dies by suicide is sometimes impossible, particularly if the person leaves no message behind. Family members often are left wondering whether a simple conversation or health referral would have made a difference.
Steve Buck, deputy commissioner of the state mental health department, said the state has implemented what are considered to be the best strategies to prevent suicide deaths, but not every area of the state has equal access to prevention programs or methods.
Some areas might have access to community health clinics staffed by mental health professionals, while others might have access to family doctors trained in identifying symptoms of potential suicide victims, Buck said.
Buck said he was confident the state could get the numbers down, but doing so would require more money to spread effective treatments to every part of the state. It also would require greater public education to reduce the stigma of talking about and treating mental illness and suicide.
“If we get to the point to where we value helping people address depression at the same level that we value reducing their use of tobacco, we are going to start making a lot of headway,” Buck said. “Mental health in many ways is physical health.”