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VA just released its 2019 National Veteran Suicide Prevention Annual Report. The number of suicides and suicide rates for America’s veterans continue to go in the wrong direction.

Here are some of the key takeaways you should know:

  • Total veteran suicides in 2017 increased slightly to 6,139;
  • Veteran suicide rates increased from 25.7 in 2016 to 27.7 in 2017;
  • Like 2016, in 2017, the suicide rate for veterans was 1.5 times the rate for non-veteran adults;
  • VA entirely re-calibrated the way it calculates the number of suicides per day. The new count for veterans who die by suicide each day is 16.8 for 2017 (compared to 16.4 for 2016); and
  • Between 2016 and 2017, the suicide rate of veterans NOT in VA care rose 11.8%; the rate of veterans who recently used VA care rose 1.8% (not a statistically significant increase according to the VA).

We must do something different.

While I appreciate the well-intended efforts of pushup challenges and hashtag campaigns to bring more awareness to this problem, we need more intentional efforts to meet veterans where they are and to directly support them before, during and following crises.

Approximately 65% of all veteran suicides involve veterans not in VA care. To solve this problem, we must do more in the community to identify at-risk veterans and get them into holistic, supportive services. Thankfully, the current Administration is finally recognizing the need to partner more in the community to solve this problem.

But, maybe, just maybe, we need to get in front of this problem. Like, way “in front.” I’m talking about before they even join the U.S. military.

The fastest way to reduce veteran suicide is to screen recruits for childhood trauma…then treat them.

VAs 2019 Annual Suicide Report

U.S. Air Force photo illustration/Airman 1st Class Corey Hook

A study published a few years ago in the Journal of American Medical Association (JAMA) Psychiatry revealed that men who volunteered for the U.S. military had more adverse childhood experiences than men without military experience (note: 96% of all veteran suicides were males). In this case, adverse childhood experiences include living with someone who has a mental illness, has been in jail, is abusing drugs or alcohol, parental divorce, or physical, verbal, or sexual abuse.

Another JAMA investigation showed that military personnel who had never deployed had suicide attempt rates almost four times higher than service members who were currently deployed, and twice as high as those who were previously deployed. These results don’t jibe with the current assumption that combat PTSD or injury is at the root of the veteran suicide epidemic.

Is it possible that suicide-related outcomes for veterans have more to do with trauma from childhood than military service? If that’s a workable hypothesis, what if the DOD screened out those who are at higher risk due to childhood trauma? Could we prevent the downstream impacts of veteran suicide?

If only it were that easy.

As it is, only c.25% of adult Americans age 18 – 34 are eligible for military service (the leading discriminators are justice/drug involvement and obesity, by the way.) Screening out candidates with childhood trauma might draw enlistment numbers down to an unsustainable level if we want to continue to have an all-volunteer force.

So, instead of screening out young men and women who have endured childhood trauma, what if we recognize it, eliminate the stigma, and help them?

What if we pulled them into supportive services early in their military experience? Then, as they move through their career paths, we could monitor them for re-exposure to those traumas. When they separate from service, we could flag them for the VA to remind caregivers (and the veteran) of the risk factors?

Addressing childhood trauma and mental health as part of training builds a stronger military than trying to return veterans to a “normal” they’ve never known after their service has ended (and trauma may have been compounded.)

Building a mental health track for new service members to support their mental well-being by addressing pre-service traumas is a more plausible option than just passing them by in the first place. And, it’s better for the military (and the country) as a whole. After all, strong mental health is just as crucial for a service member as physical fitness and strength.

Chris Ford

20-year Air Force Veteran and Stop Soldier Suicide CEO

September 21, 2019