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The Damning Statistics of Veteran Suicides in the U.S.

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Suicide has long been a taboo subject, but when comedian/ actor Robin Williams committed suicide by asphyxiation in early Aug 2014, the general public took notice. It was all over TV, newspapers, social media and blogs. Everyone had their opinion about the tragic event.

However, nearly a month after that, by Sep 10th, 2014 — World Suicide Prevention Day — about another 65,000 people or so had taken their lives around the world — unbeknownst to most people except those closest to them, unless they were famous. This is based on an estimate of over 804,000 suicide deaths per year worldwide (as of 2012), according to WHO (World Health Organization). In the seven days of National Suicide Prevention Week, which took place from Sept. 8-14 in the U.S. in 2014, an estimated 730 people or more likely took their life, based on an American suicide count of 36-39,000 deaths per year in recent years. Then there are all those people who attempted suicide but did not succeed.


1. General Facts and Stats About Suicide

Depression is one of the primary causes of suicide, and it’s estimated that at least one in three adults worldwide will suffer from depression at some point in their lives. Over 90% of suicide deaths are for people who had clinical depression or some form mental disorder, including bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, anxiety disorders and others.

Risk factors of suicide, according to WebMD, include: previous attempts; physical or sexual abuse; chronic pain or physical illness; incarceration; family history of any of violence, suicide, mental disorder, substance abuse; exposure to other suicidal behavior. Warning signs include talking about death or suicide; behaving as if having “a death wish;” declaring feelings of hopelessness or helplessness; changing a will; saying goodbye to people; suddenly changing from sadness to calmness or apparent happiness. Note that between 20-50% of people who have committed suicide had tried previously.

2. United States

Worldwide cases of suicide have dropped from 883K in 2000 to 804K in 2012, making it the 15th-highest cause of death. However, in the United States, the yearly total has been increasing, at least since 1999. Hopeline analyzed CDC WISQARS suicide data in the U.S. for 2010 and found the following facts, which we’ve supplemented with a 2011 analysis.

Statistic 2010 2011
Total suicides 38,364 39,518
Daily average 105.11 108.27
National rate (deaths per 100,000 population) 12.43 12.68
Male suicides 30,277 31,003
Male % of total 78.92% 78.45%
Female suicides 8,087 8,515
Female % of total 21.08% 21.55%
White suicides 34,690 35,775
White % of total 90.42% 90.53%
Frequency of suicide (all age groups) One every 13.7 minutes (or almost 4 per hour). One every 13.3 minutes.
Total youth suicides (15-24) 4600 4822
Daily average 12.60 13.21
Frequency (15-24) One nearly every 2 hours (1 hr, 54 min) One every 1 hour, 49 minutes
Total youth suicides (0-24) 4867 5104
Daily average 13.33 13.98
Frequency (0-24) One every 1 hr, 48 min One every 1 hr, 43 min
Male to female ratio of suicide deaths 3.74 3.64

Hopeline’s report also indicated that approximately 6 people other than the deceased are intimately affected by each suicide. This is based on estimates, not actual national figures. Over the period 1986-2011, a total of 836,190 suicides occurred in the U.S., meaning that over 5M (5,017,140) people were affected during this 26-year period, in total. Assume that all of these survivors were still alive in 2011. Based on an estimated population of 311.6M (311,582,564) Americans in 2011, more than 1 in every 62 people had been affected by someone’s suicide at that point, and the number of affected grows yearly.

The following table shows total suicides by year between 1999-2011, without a frequency analysis.

Year Deaths Population Crude Rate Age-Adjusted Rate % of pop’n
2011 39,518 311,582,564 12.68 12.32 0.0127%
2010 38,364 308,745,538 12.43 12.08 0.0124%
2009 36,909 306,771,529 12.03 11.75 0.0120%
2008 36,035 304,093,966 11.85 11.6 0.0119%
2007 34,598 301,231,207 11.49 11.27 0.0115%
2006 33,300 298,379,912 11.16 10.97 0.0112%
2005 32,637 295,516,599 11.04 10.9 0.0110%
2004 32,439 292,805,298 11.08 10.97 0.0111%
2003 31,484 290,107,933 10.85 10.77 0.0109%
2002 31,655 287,625,193 11.01 10.95 0.0110%
2001 30,622 284,968,955 10.75 10.71 0.0108%
2000 29,350 281,421,906 10.43 10.44 0.0104%
1999 29,199 279,040,181 10.46 10.48 0.0105%

3. Suicide by Firearms

One statistic that may be incredibly surprising is that in the United States, for at least the years 1999-2011 (13 years), more than 50% of suicides each year were committed by firearm. The table below shows the total number of suicides per year plus the break down of gun suicides (total and by gun category).

Note: The total suicide count for 2011 was updated by the CDC as 39,518. The original figure in this table was 38,285, for a %gun suicides of 51.63%. An updated figure for the total number of gun suicides for 2011 was unavailable at the time of writing. Nevertheless, the % of gun suicides still exceeded 50% for 2011.

Year Total Suicides Total Suicides Rate % gun suicides All Gun Suicides All Gun Suicides Rate Handgun Suicides Long Gun Suicides Gun Suicides (Other)
2011 39,518 12.68 50.02 19,766 6.3
2010 38,364 12.43 50.55 19,392 6.28 4,603 2,957 11,832
2009 36,909 12.03 50.76 18,735 6.11 4,474 2,924 11,337
2008 36,035 11.85 50.57 18,223 5.99 4,119 2,952 11,152
2007 34,598 11.49 50.15 17,352 5.76 3,801 2,758 10,793
2006 33,300 11.16 50.70 16,883 5.66 3,655 2,758 10,470
2005 32,637 11.04 52.09 17,002 5.75 3,654 2,915 10,433
2004 32,439 11.08 51.64 16,750 5.72 3,609 2,798 10,343
2003 31,484 10.85 53.70 16,907 5.83 3,672 2,668 10,567
2002 31,655 11.01 54.05 17,108 5.95 3,597 2,908 10,603
2001 30,622 10.75 55.09 16,869 5.92 3,489 2,814 10,566
2000 29,350 10.43 56.51 16,586 5.89 3,520 2,684 10,382
1999 29,199 10.46 56.85 16,599 5.95 3,476 2,776 10,347

The total number of suicides in the period 1999-2011, inclusive, was 436,110. The total number of gun suicides (using the original 2011 figure) was 228,172, for an overall rate of 52.32% of suicides committed by firearm.

4. Suicide Attempts

There are no official figures on suicide attempts; however, Hopeline quoted a SAMHSA study for 2008-9 and came up with a 2010 estimate. We’ve extended this to estimate suicide attempts, based on a 25-to-1 ratio of attempts to deaths (ratios are higher for youth). The “Attempt frequency” column refers to the number of seconds that pass (in a given year) before another suicide attempt is made. (Note: a 2014 World Health Health Organization estimate is a 20-to-1 ratio of attempts to actual suicides.)

Year Suicides Suicide attempts Attempt frequency (seconds)
2011 39,518 987,950 31.92
2010 38,364 959,100 32.88
2009 36,909 922,725 34.18
2008 36,035 900,875 35.01
2007 34,598 864,950 36.46
2006 33,300 832,500 37.88
2005 32,637 815,925 38.65
2004 32,439 810,975 38.89
2003 31,484 787,100 40.07
2002 31,655 791,375 39.85
2001 30,622 765,550 41.19
2000 29,350 733,750 42.98
1999 29,199 729,975 43.20

5. At-Risk Groups: Military – Veterans and Troops

Certain demographic groups in the U.S. seem more susceptible to suicide and suicide attempts than others. Amongst those groups are rural populations, native populations, youth between 15-24, veterans, and active members of the military.

While all suicides are tragic, veteran suicides are particularly troublesome. Men and women who serve the country see active duty and come back changed, suffered or otherwise ill or injured. Some even have surprisingly long waits for health benefits, despite the service they have given.

The sad truth appears to be that veterans and active troop members are at a far higher risk, in terms of suicide rate per 100,000, than any other group, and are well above the U.S. national average. This group often has considerably more stressful or dangerous situations to deal with than other groups. For those who get injured, fall ill, or both, life can become unbearable without medication. It may be difficult to find work or merely cope with life in general.

An Apr 2012 New York Times article pointed out the contrast to the number of non-suicide deaths of active soldiers — about one such death in Iraq or Afghanistan every day and a half. By comparison, veteran suicides were happening at about one every 80 minutes. In total, that amounts to about 6,500 veteran suicides per year — more than the body count in both wars since their start.

Some soldiers who return suffer from PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), tremors, sleeplessness, chronic pain or a number of other ailments. Drug and alcohol abuse become common habits, and some feel the need to purchase a gun to keep even by their bedside. Sometimes brain injuries go undiagnosed, until it’s too late, and they might be a factor in veteran suicides, combined with PTSD. It’s possible that as many as one in five veterans suffers from PTSD. Soldiers go through numerous situations while active that can cause traumas and are redeployed instead of being given much needed support.

Not surprisingly, the Pentagon reported that suicide rates go up during war year — even more so than previously reported. They determined this using new calculations by the DoD (U.S. Department of Defense) in Apr 2014. Here are some of the details, sourced from USA Today.

  • The suicide rate across the military was as much as 1% higher than reported for the years 2006 forward (during fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan). The new estimates come from an effort to standardize enumeration of suicides across all branches of the military.
  • From 2005, the military suicide rate began to increase, with Army personnel particularly at risk.
  • Estimates to date are that the peak was reach in 2012, when the suicide rate amongst full-time soldiers reached nearly 30 (29.7) deaths per 100,000 soldiers. This exceeds the 25.1 rate for civilians in a similar age group in 2010.
  • Male soldiers collectively reached a 31.8 rate.
  • 164 full-time soldiers committed suicide in 2012.
  • 110 members of the Army National Guard committed suicide in 2012 — a rate of 34.2 suicides per 100,000.
  • The rate for all full-time troops peaked at a 22.7 per 100K rate in 2012, dropping to 19.1 per 100K in 2013.

The DoD’s Suicide Outreach program published a 2014 report (accurate as of Aug 15, 2014) that listed suicide counts and rates for 2012, 2013 and Q1 2014, for different military services and components. The table is reproduced below, and echoes the comment above about members of the Army being at particular risk.

DoD Component and Service
2012 2013 2014
total suicide counts annual rate total suicide counts annual rate Q1 suicide counts
ActiveComponent 320 22.7 255 18.7 74
Air Force 50 15 48 14.4 19
Army 164 29.7 120 23 28
Marine Corps 48 24.3 45 23.1 11
Navy 58 17.8 42 13.4 16
Reserves 72 19.3 86 23.4 24
Air Force Reserve 3 12 2
Army Reserve 50 24.7 59 30.1 13
Marine Corps Reserve 11 11 4
Navy Reserve 8 4 5
National Guard 130 28.1 134 28.9 22
Air National Guard 20 19.1 14 6
Army National Guard 110 30.8 120 33.7 16

6. Claims Benefit Wait Times

Imagine that someone you care about goes into active duty, puts their life on the line, then comes back ill and/or injured, cannot function they way they once did, cannot get/ keep a job or maybe cannot even cope with daily living. As noted early, as many as one in five veterans might be suffering from PTSD, and combined with other conditions, this can make a veterans life physically or emotionally painful.

On top of all that, if they cannot function in a job, they have to go through a benefit claims process that appears to be failing those who have served the country. While the VA (Veterans Administration) has current initiatives to improve claims handling (thanks in part due to an executive order by President Obama), the fact is that there is a claims backlog that is atrocious. The VA claims a goal of 125 days for processing, but with more complex claims sometimes being mishandled by VA processing staff, veterans sometimes have to appeal – often more than once. This results in an average wait time of well beyond 125 days.

According to investigative reporting by News21.com in Aug 2013, the average wait time for a claim is now 429.6 days (as of Sep 2012). Meanwhile, workers in some VA offices are being collectively paid millions in bonuses for quantity of claims processed, meaning that simple claims get pushed through while complex claims either get rejected, or held waiting for evidence documentation to be processed (as much as 206 .7 days).

Worse, with troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as new conditions allowable for claims for veterans of earlier wars including Vietnam, the VA caseload is only going to grow. Of the 57 U.S. cities with VA processing offices, 17 exceed the 429.6 day wait time average. Nine offices in 2012 had average wait times exceeding 500 days, with the top most (Baltimore) and 780 days.

In addition to the veteran suicides reportage from News21, TheWaitWeCarry.com also documents, with an interactive Web site, the over 275,000 veterans who have an average wait time exceeding 336 days for the benefits claims. Since chronic pain and anxiety or mental disorders are risk factors for suicide, and since being unable to pay for bills, food, rent or medical care can become a reality for some veterans, the VA’s abject failure in serving our veterans and giving them their due may very well be contributing to the rise in veteran suicides.

We are all potentially susceptible to suicide, no matter what the underlying cause. If someone you know seems depressed, get them to talk about how they are feeling, encourage them to talk to a professional. If you are feeling depressed and feel suicidal, please call a crisis center, visit your place or worship, or arrange to meet with a counselor. Free clinics do exist in many cities, so even those who need to be budget-conscious can receive help.

References

Some information for this article comes from the following Web sites and pages.

  1. http://www.gunpolicy.org/firearms/region/united-states
  2. http://www.hopeline.com/pdf/2010-data-by-state.pdf
  3. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/rae-abileah/military-suicide_b_1590472.html
  4. http://www.meganmeierfoundation.org/statistics.html
  5. http://backhome.news21.com/article/claims/
  6. http://backhome.news21.com/interactive/days-interactive/
  7. http://www.suicideoutreach.org/Docs/Reports/DoD%20Quarterly%20Suicide%20Report%20CY2014%20Q1.pdf
  8. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/04/15/opinion/sunday/kristof-a-veterans-death-the-nations-shame.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0
  9. http://www.usatoday.com/story/nation/2014/04/25/suicide-rates-army-military-pentagon/8060059/
  10. http://www.webmd.com/depression/guide/depression-recognizing-signs-of-suicide