Military Psychology Sociology

Why Veterans Die by Suicide

To answer the question of why veterans die by suicide, we must first consider the reasons why anyone might be driven to consider this option. Than, we must consider how this knowledge applies to the unique experiences of veterans.

Suicide is a reaction to extreme psychological pain.

Suicide is not a “cowards way out,” nor is it the result of someone being “crazy”. In fact, those who have completed suicide are those who are least fearful since they were able to overcome the brain’s survival mechanism based in the amygdala. But what drives individuals to want to overcome their hard-wired desire for self-preservation?

In Suicide as Psychache, Edwin Shneidman argues that suicide is the result of an intense level of emotional pain that exceeds the individual’s threshold to endure it. Of course, we all experience emotional pain in our lives, but in the case of suicide this emotional pain is both intense and prolonged; combined with the loss of hope, suicide seems like the only way to relieve the pain. But what has the power to cause this extreme level of emotional pain?

Psychological pain can result from social isolation.

In Why People Die by Suicide, Thomas Joiner builds on the pain-oriented theories, arguing that intense emotional pain often comes from a perceived lack of belonging or feeling like a burden. Thwarted belongingness is characterized by the statement “I am alone”. This has two aspects: loneliness as the result of feeling disconnected from others (living alone, single, no children etc.), and the absence of reciprocal care (family conflict, loss through death of divorce, domestic or child abuse etc.). The ‘perceived burdensomeness’ factor is characterized by feeling like a liability to others, as well as a sense of self-loathing. When combined with a sense of hopelessness, thoughts of suicide are a likely result.

Veterans often experience isolation and lack of community.

This is particularly relevant to veterans in transition to civilian life because they are often coming out of a tightly-knit social unit, experiencing a sense of disconnection and isolation in civilian life. In an article called What Vets Miss Most Is What Most Civilians Fear: A Regimented, Cohesive Network That Always Checks On You, the author states:

The truth is that I had never been in such a supportive social environment in my life.… when Veterans leave military service, many of them, like me, are leaving the most cohesive and helpful social network they’ve ever experienced. And that hurts. Most recent Veterans aren’t suffering because they remember what was bad. They’re suffering because they miss what was good.

A comment below the article expands on this sentiment in terms of the concept of ‘trust’: “Veterans mostly miss bonds built on trust, demonstrated through actions not just words.” The experience of this demonstration beyond words can be witnessed in the following lines from the book, Memoirs of an Outlaw: Life in the Sandbox:

“We had relied on one another to have our backs and would have given our lives to protect the others. We had built a relationship that was stronger than just rank: we were a family, a brotherhood, sewn together by trust, respect, blood, tears, and sweat. Everything we had built together was slowly being torn apart.”

Training instills this commitment to the group, evidence of this commitment solidifies it, and the transition to civilian life can tear it apart. The social cause of suicide among veterans in transition is often forgotten since there has been such a strong focus on treating individuals rather than communities.

Veterans want the sense of community offered by the military.

Many veterans I’ve spoke with over the years have had their own utopic vision of what should be done to help veterans transition to civilian life, but there has been one solution that I’ve started to hear more often: an exclusive veteran community.

Each person seems to have their own version of this community, from veteran-only towns, to even a veteran-only island. There is a strong desire among many veterans to band together into some form of veteran-community to regain a sense of belonging and understanding among their peers who are dealing with the same issues.

Beyond just the belonging and understanding, veterans feel like a community of like-minded peers could be an unstoppable political and social force when combining the high level of skill and focus acquired through military training. The potential joint-ventures and contributions to the broader society are limitless.

It is this sense of belonging and contribution that can combat the sense of isolation and burdensomeness that put individuals at risk of suicide.

The dream of a veteran-community is becoming a reality.

Veterans House is one organization that is taking action to turn this dream into a reality, and it is all starting with one house.

Veterans House is a peer-support home environment where veterans can heal from Mental Health or Operational Stress Injuries and transition to a meaningful life with their families and communities. It is unique because it is based on live-in, peer-support, and the 24-hour presence of others who are also recovering and have encountered similar experiences in their transition.

Up until this point, they have engaged in an extensive planning-process, and are now announcing the launch of their first fundraising program to help get this project off the ground.

Their project has strong potential to contribute to suicide prevention among this unique population.

To learn more about their founder’s transition and to support Veterans House, you can click here.

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  1. I don’t know if it’s been addressed already in the comments, but is Veterans House exclusively for vets? If so, that strikes me as dangerous as a reinforcement of self isolation, even if communal. What might a solution look like that deliberately breaks down what Karl Marlantes calls “The Club” and that insists healing comes from outside our own trauma, as well as inside?

  2. Viewing this existence of our’s as a Me And My Life and The People In My Life – always in this order, is very important. The surrounding, the society, the people around us, the friends, the enemies, the acquintances – all keeps changing. But if the ‘ME’ remains steady then the Life related to Me will remain unaffected by the ever changing surroundings. The lesser one is affected by external changes and influences the lesser one is vulnerable to extreme emotional reactions and a gutsy albeit totally unnecessary action like suicide. Hope just like self preservation should evoke from within. In total darkness, the heart should believe in a dawn, not the brain reason that a dawn follows dark night. – Swami Guptagyan

  3. Looks as though I am going to again stick my neck out and swim opposite the flow of things.

    It never ceases to amaze me how mindlessly numb we have become to a respect for human lives. It has been guesstimated that there are approximately 82 million people in the world, since the American Revolution, that have lost their lives. This, the obscene and criminal reality of the American Government, postulated under the guise of “patriotism and defending the national security…”

    Of course, none of this would have been possible were it not for the likes of American men who have largely volunteered to go over seas and wantonly kill people they don’t even know because a handful of criminal thugs in Congress, the Senate and the “White House” declare it to be the “right thing to do.”

    The irony of all this, too, is our shock and horror and surprise when men return home horribly crippled, mentally and physically. Duh!!!


    1. Hey Bill,

      The research I’ve seen has shown that a number of veterans who have never even seen combat also kill themselves at a comparable rate to the ones who have actually seen combat. This implies that it’s not the horrors that they’ve seen in combat causing them to reach such a desperate place, but something else.

      I don’t disagree with you that a number of the wars are excessive and it’s a tragedy that people are being sent to fight, but that isn’t the main point of this article. I don’t think it’s sticking your neck out to say we shouldn’t send people to their deaths. Both sides of the political spectrum are against needlessly throwing away lives.

      Part of me wonders if you even read this article, since it’s talking about how it’s not avoiding the bad that causes this deep depression, but missing the good.

  4. You’ve written before, Steve, that veterans see civilian society as pathological. I’m hoping that the Veterans House movement serves as model of an alternative lifestyle that eventually spreads into civilian life. It would be shame if it succeeded as an island unto itself.

  5. Steve, as a \Vietnam Veteran (non-Combat Arms), I have read quite a bit about PTSD, CTE, veteran suicide rates, etc. I have recently seen it cited that the only year in which the veteran suicide rate had surpassed the general population was 2008. Whether that’s right or wrong, however, even one suicide–vet or civilian–is one too many.

  6. Thank you for this. It’s a new aspect I hadn’t thought of–missing what was good. I think also psychic loneliness is a part of this. When you are physically IN a community but you are emotionally detatched. When you feel constantly like an outsider, however many people, friends and family members surround you. You are never going to be a part of it. You are never going to belong

  7. Thanks, Steve. You hit the nail on the head about the sense of community. These bonds are intense. From inside the mil, looking out, I see so much that would benefit from the cohesion this life brings. Yet, we take it for granted or simply don’t appreciate it until too late.
    All the best, top post.

  8. Thank you Steve. In my experience, those who have no personal connection to the military just don’t get it. The way you explain why they commit suicide would make sense to anybody. Well said.

  9. I know the sense of identity. My dad was in the Army, and one of the things that holds these folks together, is the strong sense of identity and community.

    When I meet someone who has an Army parent, there is an immediate kinship.

    Civilians do not understand this.

    This kinship is intensified in war… The loss is stronger and deeper

  10. Some of the things highlighted here are the exact reason we form private groups on social media. And we’ve had some success with interventions. I honestly don’t think there’s much of anything civilians can do to treat PTSD other than enable us to help treat each other. You can do all of the academic studies you want but to us, you’re an outsider and you can’t understand us the way we understand each other. That’s not to say these studies are pointless. Quite the contrary. To me it highlights why we need to improve the groups we’re already relying on as well as other networks. We already know we get nothing from the VA and society doesn’t understand us. And quite frankly, we don’t care if they do.

    1. Thank you for sharing your experience. This is exactly why veteran-run peer-support groups should be supported. Hopefully the writing and the studies will at least convince the broader public, politicians, or corporate sponsors who can provide the initial monetary support required to start programs like this; but private social media groups are a free alternative to in-person peer-support and the dream of the veteran-exclusive town.

      1. We’ve had several successful interventions. One even made the news and probably would have ended very badly had our groups not gotten involved. I’d say more but I don’t want to violate anyone’s privacy. But they were convinced by their peers to end the situation peacefully. All the civilians did is make him more resolved in ending it in a bad way. But I’ve come to understand that not only do we understand each other more naturally, we listen to each other more than we might an outsider. Anyway, I do read what you write and there’s value in it. Thanks

    2. I agree a lot with this. As an abuse Survivor with PTSD I’ve come to realise that the best support I get is from my peers. I too am at a loss to know what to do about the PTSD that I’ve had for 50 years now! I hope society in the USA gives you what you need. And above all, that you are heard above all else

  11. although the demands to conform is present, in the cultures and societies, but not everybody who’s dealing with similar difficulties all choose the same way out, so, i think that individual differences should be the focus here…

    1. Thank you for the comment! Sociologically speaking, we can speak about general trends in human behavior. On the individual level, there is for sure an infinite amount of complexity and diversity.

  12. This makes so much sense, the loss of a community. How can those who haven’t been through the same intense experiences really relate to Veterans? Thank you for sharing this information. They have given so much and receive so little in return. I hope that we can learn how to best honor our troops with the respect and gratitude that they deserve.

    1. Thank you for this comment! Although those who have not been through it can’t directly relate, there are other forms of transition that might have have a similar effect on people; one of which might include the transition out of being a priest or pastor.

    2. Interesting approach. I would also like to think that relating to Veterans is about listening and being heard. Many groups (people taken hostage, abused, gang raped etc) have undergone severe trauma and feel that someone relates when they are heard. In short, empathy.

  13. Great post, Steve. Very informative. I was watching the evening news earlier tonight and it featured a story about a man that was trying to get help from the VA, did not receive help, and committed suicide. It’s terrible and so sad. My heart goes out to veterans.

      1. You’re welcome! The blogging community seems to have a lot of hope, so hopefully many veterans blog, or will begin to. Great post, oh and nice bow tie by the way. 😀

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