Studies show that loneliness among former service members is a major contributing factor in the suicide rate for veterans.
The suicide rate among veterans is already 1.5 times the national average. In any given 24-hour period, nearly 20 take their own lives. Nearly 79,000 veterans died by suicide between 2005 and 2017. According to VA reporting, 6,139 veterans killed themselves in 2017, compared with 5,787 in 2005. In the same year, veterans accounted for 13.5% of all deaths by suicide among U.S. adults, yet constituted less than eight percent of the adult population. The veteran suicide rate is 50% higher than non-veteran adults, and suicide is one of only three leading causes of death in the United States not on the decline.
Concerns about the veteran population under the enhanced isolation of COVID-19 has even reached official levels.
"For those Veterans that haven’t enrolled in care yet: if you are in need of care, come in and see us. Call us first, but come in and see us and we’ll work on your enrollment after we take care of your acute health care need, Dr. Richard Stone, Executive in Charge of the Veterans Health Administration recently said in a video message to veterans. "This COVID crisis can create a lot of anxiety, and one of the things we’re trying to do is to take down that anxiety by making sure you know that across this nation, that we are here for every Veteran that needs us."
Under Federal social distancing guidelines and state level Shelter in Place mandates, many VA outpatient mental health programs have been put on hold or are being held virtually. Some residential VA mental health facilities have actually closed as a consequence of COVID-19.
This risk is not even acknowledging the rate of actual virus infection among veterans. As of April 5, the latest date statistics are available, the virus has infected 6,692 VA patients, up from 1,602 less than 2 weeks ago, according to acccesstocare.va.gov. COVID-19 has claimed the lives of 413 VA Hospital inpatients as of 11 a.m. this morning. In Georgia alone, there are 171 confirmed COVID-19 cases among veterans, with seven deaths of inpatients at Georgia's three Veteran Hospitals.
"Equally troubling is the fact that suicide rates rise during periods of economic recession, especially when broadly realized across the population. Negative public perceptions of the economy as measured by the Consumer Sentiment Index are directly associated with increases in suicide rates," states.a recent public release by Stop Soldier Suicide.
"Government austerity measures introduced in response to recessions also contribute. Long durations of sustained societal financial hardship increase stressors such as higher personal debt, auto repossessions and home foreclosures, relationship difficulties, unemployment and under-employment, and cuts in mental health services," R. Keith Hotle, Chief Program Officer with Stop Soldier Suicide, said, "Of these, unemployment may be the strongest risk factor for the veterans we serve at Stop Soldier Suicide."
Persons already vulnerable due to pre‐existing mental illness are among those individuals most likely to lose their jobs during recessionary times, thus compounding the adverse effect of unemployment and financial difficulties. Men of working‐age appear to be at greatest risk during periods of economic hardship and unemployment, which is consistent with prevailing suicide theories that posit suicides typically occur when those at-risk experience feelings of hopelessness, perceive themselves as burdens to their families and others, and become disconnected from natural networks of support – which for most middle-aged men is their employer.
In an effort to confront the impact of COVID-19 isolation on veterans, the Cerner Corporation, the company developing electronic health records for the Defense and Veterans Affairs departments, has launched a veterans suicide prevention initiative called LifeAid.
"This is a national epidemic in its own right – mental health issues and suicide. I’m a caregiver of someone that actually has suffered from mental health issues his entire life, who has been down this path multiple times, and it can strike anyone at any time, anywhere. And none of us, I think, are immune to knowing someone or suffering individually from issues related to mental health," said Travis Dalton, president of Cerner Government Services, "And so that’s one of the reasons we’ve been so passionate about the LifeAid mission, particularly during this time when you have those that may be suffering from mental health issues that are maybe experiencing isolation or other stress associated with COVID-19 and some of the policies and procedures in the local communities."
Outside of Veteran suicide hotlines and services, support among veteran communities is vital, said Veterans’ Affairs Chairman Mark Takano.
“In the military there is such a thing as buddy checks, when you check in on your fellow service members. Long before COVID-19 hit our country, we have encouraged veterans to do regular buddy checks with other veterans to combat loneliness, isolation and offer peer support,”said Takano. “Social distancing may present challenges, but veterans have experience persisting and thriving under difficult conditions --often not by choice. Veterans understand the meaning of service—because of that they have a special role to play as leaders among their neighbors by encouraging physical distancing and fostering social connectedness during this crisis. I like to say we have a moral duty to be optimistic, and in these times it’s even more important that we check on each other, lift each other up, and be positive and optimistic.”
If you or a veteran you know are struggling, contact the Veteran Crisis Line 24/7 at 1-800-273-8255 and select option 1, or text 838255. For more resources on how veterans can take care of their mental health throughout the pandemic, visit The Committee’s COVID-19 Resource Page.
National Center for PTSD Mobile App: COVID CoachThis free mobile app is designed to help you build resilience, manage stress, and increase your well-being during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic with tools to help you stay connected, work from home, navigate parenting or caregiving, and stay healthy while sheltering in place.