By Alexandra Kurapova
On Friday the US Department of Veterans Affairs revealed in a report that on average 22 veterans kill themselves every day, in other words one man commits suicide every 65 minutes. The released data provide an alarming picture and call for immediate steps to strengthen mental health care.
The report covers suicide incidents from 1999 to 2010. About 70 percent of all veteran suicides were committed by individuals aged 50 and older, the report says. The data are raw, the department notes, more information obtained from the US states is now being processed, and the real picture may be more dramatic.
The news came just two weeks after the US Department of Defense acknowledged that suicide rate among service members hit record high in 2012. More than 349 soldiers committed suicide in 2012, they confirmed, including 182 suicides registered in the Army, 60 suicides in of the Navy, 59 in the Air Force and 48 in the Marine Corps. One active-duty member kills himself every 25 hours, they had to admit.
Now with the Veterans Affairs data released, it has emerged that suicide rate among veterans has far outpaced the suicide rate among active-duty members, which in its turn has turned out to be twice as many as the number of soldiers killed in combats in 2012.
In June last year speaking at the annual conference of the departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs, Secretary of Defense Leon E. Panetta called suicide among the military “perhaps the most frustrating challenge” he had faced since becoming secretary of defense.
In September 2012 Susan Blumenthal, the Director of the Health and Medicine Program at the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress in Washington, D.C., wrote in her column that suicide is “the result of a complex process by which protective factors – treatment, counseling, social supports, and other elements – are inhibited while promoting factors – mental illness (including depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)), substance and alcohol abuse, stress, battle injuries, marital problems, financial difficulties, a humiliating or very stressful life experience, access to a lethal method, and other influences – are heightened.”
Of course, participation in combats leads to an increased risk of stress that can serve a suicide factor, she continues, but she particularly stresses that the majority of “suicides occurred among troops who had no combat history – and nearly one-third of suicides in the military occurred among those who had not deployed even once.” Continuous blasts miles away are sufficient to cause suicidal thoughts and behavior in military personnel, she concludes.
Millions of dollars are spent annually to provide active-duty members and veterans with mental health care. Experts say more initiatives are needed, particularly in the area of early detection of those at risk and timely provision of professional help needed.
In August 2012 President Obama sighed an executive order called “Improving Access to Mental Health Services for Veterans, Service Members, and Military Families” that gives way to some important measures to deal with the issue. Among the measures are an extension of the capacity of the Veteran Crisis Line by 50 percent and an instruction to hire more mental health professionals available to see veterans beyond traditional hours.
The initiatives are good, but they lack the one thing mostly needed to realize them – funding. “Obama’s executive order doesn’t say a word about money,” writes Huffington Post columnist Leila Levinson. She notes that according to the Congressional Budget Office’s statement last year “the annual cost of caring for veterans from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars would nearly triple in the next decade, rising from $1.9 billion in 2010 to somewhere between $5.5 billion to $8.4 billion in 2020.”