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Suicide Among Veterans and Why It Matters

Why do so many veterans die by suicide?

Thomas Ricks is a contributing editor of Foreign Policy magazine, he reported on U.S. military activities in war-torn countries around the world, he is a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner and has written five books on the military and national security issues. And he doesn’t have the answer to this disturbing question. But it haunts him. He talks about it in his commentary in the Chicago Tribune (Why so many veterans commit suicide).

For Ricks, it’s personal. The note he received from the Vietnam vet who was in “a very dark place” and contemplating taking his own life. The Army captain he had written about who laid across train tracks and died. The commander, who was found dead in his home after several deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan.

Although mental health is an important topic for everyone, it is of particular significance for our nation’s veterans, many of whom struggle with mental health issues that stem from combat, deployment, declining physical health and readjusting to civilian life.

Suicide impacts veterans disproportionately. Although they represent only 8 percent of the total population, they account for more than 14 percent of all suicides, according to the latest VA report on suicide. The statistics are disheartening. Every day, 20 veterans die by suicide. Veterans have a 41-61 percent higher risk of suicide than nonveterans. Their rate of depression is five times higher than civilians.

November is Military Family Month and for the more than 1.3 million men and women serving in the U.S. military, Mental Health First Aid for Veterans is critical. The course teaches participants how to assess for risk of suicide and the signs of suicidal behavior. Mental Health First Aid makes clear that you should always seek emergency medical help if the person’s life is in immediate danger and helps you recognize the warning signs.

Mental Health First Aid also teaches you what isn’t supportive. Don’t tell someone who is contemplating suicide to “Snap out of it” or “Get over it.” Don’t trivialize the person’s experiences by pressuring them to “put a smile on your face,” “Get your act together” or “Lighten up.” Don’t belittle or dismiss the person’s feelings by attempting to say something positive like, “You don’t seem that bad to me.”

In November, get trained in Mental Health First Aid. If you’re already a First Aider – congratulations, you are making a difference! If not, look for a course in your area and sign up. If you are a veteran or know someone who is, consider taking the veterans course so you can equip yourself with the tools necessary to recognize and respond to a veteran experiencing a mental health or substance use challenge.