For those of us who live in and work with the military community, the word veteran brings many faces to mind. Battle buddies, siblings, parents, friends, neighbors – loved ones.

In 2021, 6,392 veteran loved ones were lost, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs' 2023 National Veteran Suicide Prevention Annual Report, published yesterday. And there are likely more we don’t yet know about, as suicide remains under-reported in nearly every jurisdiction.

After two years of decreasing suicide numbers, this increase is all the more frustrating. For the fourth year in a row, VA claims that even one death by suicide is one too many, but if that’s the case, why are we continuing with public health approaches that aren’t working?

The 2021 report includes the first full year of COVID-19 pandemic era data, which brought significant increases in loneliness, financial and relationship strains, substance use, and other suicide risk factors. According to VA’s report, veterans also were found to experience more mental health concerns than non-veterans.

Key data points from 2021 include:

  • There were 6,392 veteran suicide deaths in 2021
    114 more deaths than in 2020
    6,042 suicide deaths among veteran men
    350 suicide deaths among veteran women

  • The veteran suicide rate continues to outpace that of non-veterans with the age- and sex-adjusted suicide rate among veterans being 71.8% greater than that of non-veteran adults

  • Suicide rates were highest among veterans between ages 18-34-years-old, followed by those aged 35-54-years-old

  • Firearm suicide rates among veteran women were 281.1% higher than that of non-veteran women, while the firearm suicide rate among veteran men was 62.4% higher than for non-veteran men

We agree with VA Undersecretary for Health Dr. Shereef Elnahal who said, “It will take all of us working together to end veteran suicide.”

Veteran suicide is not inevitable. As the uncontested leader in clinical suicide prevention, Stop Soldier Suicide has seen first-hand the impact of innovation and suicide-specific care models grounded in military culture. And we know the 2021 numbers could have been much higher were it not for Stop Soldier Suicide’s one-of-a-kind suicide intervention model.

VA states in their report, “Our actions are built upon a foundation of hope.” But hope must be grounded in innovation and evidence-based interventions to solve this complex crisis. We are relentless in achieving our goal of reducing the military suicide rate to civilian parity, and we are focused on moving beyond platitudes to action. At Stop Soldier Suicide, we are:

-Redefining the way we understand and act on risk with Black Box Project: One of two of VA’s Mission Daybreak first place projects, Black Box Project bridges the gap in current-state suicide prevention science - helping us find and reach suicidal veterans and service members in what could be their final hours, days, weeks, and months.

-Pursuing a technology-first approach: We’re providing immediate, confidential, and hassle-free, no-cost care to service members and veterans at highest risk for suicide, regardless of period served or discharge status.

-Continuously innovating: In 2023, we launched ROGER, the wellness service of SSS and a program designed to eliminate barriers to care and be more accessible to a wider range of people. Using insights from Black Box Project and clients, as well as evidence-based best practices, we are constantly improving our service model to better meet the needs of both our clinicians and clients in service of saving more lives.

Veteran suicide is not inevitable. With impactful generosity, paired with our commitment to these approaches, we can change this trajectory and save veteran lives.

If you’re a service member or veteran (or you know one) who’s struggling with recent events, call Stop Solider Suicide, 24/7, at 833-962-2950.

by Chris Ford
U.S. Air Force (Ret.)
Chief Executive Officer, Stop Soldier Suicide