Military Psychology Sociology

Who are the 22 veterans?

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?

Veteran suicides

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.


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20 comments

  1. Again thought provoking im in this demagraphic group seen too many take their own lives though most of them were in their 30s or early 40s.
    My brother took his own life and I often wonder why. Depression a nasty issue in society would be the answer. As for us older veterans maybe it’s the feeling of what next. How do i support my family starting on lower incomes than we were on. Most civilian employees don’t recognize what ex service personnel can bring to there work place
    So you have the pressure of a mortgage bills to pay and the rest for less and i would say sometimes it’s simpler to take the most common sense route.
    I maybe way off the mark here but it could be a reason for so many older veterans falling by the wayside no support network to check in on them to see how their travelling post service.

    1. Paul, I read this post when it first came out. Being 71, the part where the age cross0over hits in the 50-59 age range was interesting. I would personally wonder if, as you suggest, the older guys, who just never ere-acclimated–finish school, decent-paying job, family and socially grounded–are included in that category. My last year “in”, I used to see this older (maybe late 50s) retired colonel, always sitting alone by himself at the O-Club. Did he have a life, did he make the transition? I wonder?

  2. I loved your post, thank you.
    I have been in the USCG now for about 14 years. The Commanding Officer of my first cutter was a serious man. He had been in already for quite some time, and was making it a career. I saw him for his retirement physical about 5 years later. He said he was sad to finally retire.
    I found out about a year after that, that he had committed suicide.
    I then started focusing more of my time in other aspects of my life: my family, hobbies, schooling. I just don’t want this to be all I have invested in; and when my time to retire comes, I want to be happy on my way out.
    It’s painful to think there are those that invest 100% of themselves in the military.

    1. Hi Jenn, I am sorry to hear about this tragic story. It looks like you are taking the right steps to make sure your transition is less isolating. I wish you all the best in your service and transition.

      1. I am a 21-year veteran of the US Army and I work for the Chaplain Corps. One of my primary duties is to teach suicide prevention, intervention, and postvention skills to our Soldiers. It was eye opening to learn that much of the veteran suicide problem rests with the Vietnam-and-older portion of our ranks. I know that many current service members are at risk from first-hand experience with counseling them. Thank you for taking a keen interest in this particular issue.

  3. Steve, in your research, have you found that the suicide rate is skewed more toward those men who spent 20-30 years in and, accordingly, might have only retired, let’s say, ten-to-fifteen years before? That would be in contrast to those who spent, let’s say, two-to-six years in, and left the service several decade before. Also, does overseas experience factor-in, since GIs normally spend more time, in close community, with men in their units, as compared to off-post?

    Either way, this is an excellent blog post. Unfortunately, the importance has been raised since the veracity of veterans with mental problems was recently raised in a recent political address to a Veterans’ group. Many in the various fields that deal with mental problems–medical or psychological, civilian or military–have been trying to bring it out into the mainstream. And that would be a great step in moving forward in finding real solutions.

    1. Thank you! I don’t have the data to answer those particular questions, but I suspect the longer time spent in the military and having deployment experience could contribute to greater difficulties when leaving, but I’ve also seen Canadian data showing that deployment experience does not necessarily increase the risk.

  4. Thank you Steve for explaining the “22” to people without a military connection and helping those with one to understand it better. My experience has taught me that while in the military people feel a part of a brotherhood with a purpose, once discharged it can be hard to find that same sense of belonging or connect with someone that “gets it.” It has also been pointed out to me by a veteran that they were trained to be tough, so it makes it especially hard to admit they need help. We have a great Veteran’s Outreach Center in Rochester, NY, that will help in any way they can.

  5. Steve- Your post is so well-written and obviously well-researched. I’m taking a technology course and our semester-long assignment is to build a website and I’ve chosen to focus on military transition (http://gettingoutofthemilitary.weebly.com). The site is in its infancy, but i hope that it can as useful and important as yours. Thank you so much for focusing on the veteran suicide rate in such a professional, scholarly way.

  6. I think it must be very hard on veterans after time spent in wars. I admire your work.
    I just thought I would tell you dear follower of my new website http://www.booksbygabrielwoods.com. There is information about my books, available discounts and a little about me. I have written a third book, A Memoir Of The Easter Rising Events 1916 – 2016. Check it out!

  7. Thank you for this very enlightening post. I am familiar with the fact that more men than women commit suicide (although I believe women have more attempts), but I hadn’t thought about the juxtaposition in the portrayal of men as more successful yet no mention of the flip side of this success, I.e. a higher rate of suicides. As someone who has grown up in a country ravaged by war, I am very interested in learning more about PTSD and the mental health of veterans in general, and your blog seems like a great place to start.

  8. Steve, I am most interested in your blog – for many reasons. My father, 91, was a WWII marine in the South Pacific. Over the years he has shared just a few stories, but recently shared one which haunts him – a moral injury. In just a few weeks I will accompany him on the Honor Flight to Washington DC, along with 89 other veterans and their guardians. I can’t even begin to imagine the emotions this experience will stir up.

    In my volunteer work with Navy recruits, I did some research about how the armed forces prepares people for war – and how they don’t. Accounts of common experiences were horrifying and certainly not “common.” the articles did acknowledge that this is slowly beginning to change. We will see what that means – but at the same time, there remains the question of how one prepares a soldier for war, killing, death, etc. (!) and at the same time “nurtures” their humanity and supports their morality. As civilian spiritual leader, how can my colleagues and I be of help?

    Thank you for shedding light on this important topic.

  9. Hi Steve, I found my way here through a reblog of your work on a blog I follow. I hadn’t heard of mental injuries and after reading a little about it, I surely have a lump in my throat. I am glad to connect with you and I would like to know more about such issues through you. Thank you so much.

  10. Steve, as always, another great post, with facts and a more professional attempt to answer those elephant-in-the room ancillary questions.

    I wonder if married-or-not was included in any of these questions. Aside from the jokes you get from a bunch of old-married guys, there might be some vets who just never fit back into civilian society. Only about one percent of America has any skin-in-the-game these days.

    During the last year of my 4 1/2 year stint in the Army, 1969, I used to notice this retired colonel, who always sat by himself at the club. He appeared to be perhaps in his mid-50s. Even at age 23, I wondered if he had wife, a girlfriend–or even a life, outside of his former active military career.

    All those however many years, did he ever blend back into Mainstream America. In fact, when I run into friends who have, say 30ish something young men, rising through the ranks, I caution them to find that anchor, who can help re-establish them, once they do their 20, 30 or whatever. Enough can never be said about that spouse, male or female, to keep the vets grounded, in preparation for discharge, sand life afterward. Life does go better with a lifetime friend.

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