In 2012, a VA report stated that an average of 22 veterans died by suicide in both 2009 and 2010. Recently, this number has become popularized in the 22 push-up challenge, bringing awareness to the issue of suicide among veterans. In the wake of this popular campaign, I want to bring attention to a question that has often been left out of the conversation: who are these veterans and why are they dying by suicide?
Take a few moments to study the table from the report. Can you spot what is happening?
Notice what happens in the 50-59 age group? Veteran suicide begins to outpace non-veteran suicide, with the gap steadily increasing with age. To answer the question of who these 22 veterans are, notice the main finding: “More than 69% of Veteran suicides are among those age 50 and older.”
In addition to this age demographic, other tables in the report also demonstrate that the majority of these individuals are white, males, and hold a high-school education. Now that we roughly know who is in this demographic, let’s consider why they may be driven to enact suicide.
In my previous post, I discussed why veterans in transition are at risk of suicide. I concluded that the isolation and lack of community puts veterans at risk of extreme psychological pain when hope is lost. Here, I want to apply these proposed theories to make sense of the estimated 22 daily suicides, demonstrating why this 50-59 age category has such a high risk.
In Lonely at the Top, Thomas Joiner looks at the problem of loneliness and isolation among older white males in Western society. Although they are typically associated with the highest levels of privilege, they are also the most suicidal. Joiner states:
Much attention is focused, rightly, on men’s disproportionate share of wealth and power; too little attention is spent on men’s disproportionate share of misery, one index of which is high suicide rates.
He argues that the loneliness and resulting misery are caused by ignoring relationships in favor of instrumental activities associated with career advancement. Joiner states that higher levels of instrumentality contributes to lower levels of depression in men compared to women, but women’s greater focus on relationships are a protective factor later in life when men are more likely to suffer from fatal levels of loneliness leading to suicide or other health complications: “Loneliness is as strong a risk factor for illness and death as smoking, obesity, and high blood pressure,” as discovered by a study.
Although men are more likely to be privileged in terms of wealth and status, they are also instrumentally oriented, therefore they often neglect deep emotional ties, resulting in suffering from chronic loneliness later in life, perhaps without even recognizing how bad it is until it’s too late.
Solutions to the problem require men to focus on maintaining and deepening meaningful social ties, particularly later in life or during retirement when they are most at risk. Joiner recommends hobbies, regular gatherings with friends, and even using Facebook, which he regards as a useful platform to stay connected with others.
So why are older veterans at such a higher risk compared to their civilian peers? This insight into the risks associated with older men are amplified when applied to someone who has served in the military. Instrumental activity/stoic masculinity is encouraged to a much higher degree. This makes it more difficult to build the deep emotional connections and social ties that are a protective factor for women later in life.
In addition, those who served in the military have experienced a level of community unparalleled in civilian life. This can amplify the sense of isolation later in life when comparing the relative lack of community they experience in civilian life. Although this is a common experience among non-veteran retirees, a veteran retiree experiences this at a much higher level.
Another risk-factor associated with the 50-59 age demographic is the traditional social norms surrounding masculinity and identity. Men’s identities have been traditionally tied to instrumental career attainment, neglecting the maintenance of quality interpersonal ties. This is why, as Joiner says, men are “lonely at the top.” Retirement or career transitions can also trigger a state of identity crisis and loss of direction – especially among veterans whose life in the military facilitated deep ties to those they served with, but leaves them often struggling to reconnect in an individualistic civilian world.
In conclusion, these roughly 22 veterans day are mostly white, less educated, men, between the ages of 50-59. This demographic is at risk of suicide due to the instilled sense of stoic instrumental masculinity and the resulting isolation and lack of deep emotional social ties. Although this is true of the 50+ male demographic generally, it is especially noticeable among veterans whose military training instilled these characteristics far beyond the corporate world. But unlike the corporate world, the military provided a strong sense of community, strongly emphasizing the sense of loneliness in the civilian world.
On the individual level, there are countless causes of suicide; usually a complex combination of various different issues. Demographically speaking, we need to consider ways to mitigate the risk of suicide, especially among the most at-risk populations. Hopefully this has shed some light on the research behind the number 22.
In order to read the original report that produced the number 22, click here.