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.