Writing in Slate last week, economist Joseph E. Stiglitz named the rate of suicides among veterans of recent wars as a “social cost of 9/11.” He cited stats from a U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs study that looked at the years 2005-07 and found 18 suicides per day among American ex-servicemen. In light of these numbers, and in honor of National Suicide Prevention Week (which began Sunday), the V.A. has posted a toll-free crisis hotline and a link for online chats to its website. Is the suicide rate among veterans any higher now than it has been in the past?
It’s hard to say, because there aren’t many reliable data from before the 1960s. But what evidence we have suggests that those who were recently discharged from service in the Vietnam War were more likely to kill themselves than veterans of today’s campaigns.
A 2004 study by a team led by researchers from the National Center for Environmental Health looked at numbers going back to 1965, and found that the suicide rate among Vietnam veterans in the five years after they were discharged was 34.5 per 100,000. For ex-military personnel who served after that war ended, the equivalent number was just 20.1. A few years later, epidemiologists for the Department of Veterans Affairs looked at U.S. veterans who’d returned from Iraq or Afghanistan, and found that 21.9 per 100,000 veterans committed suicide—not much higher than the control group in the previous study. It’s possible that rates will go up in years to come, as more soldiers are discharged after multiple deployments.
No one tracked military suicide rates carefully prior to the Vietnam War. Post-traumatic stress disorder wasn’t officially recognized by the American Psychiatric Association until 1980, when the psychological fallout from an unpopular war was becoming more visible in the mental-health community.
There’s evidence that suicides are getting more common among soldiers who remain actively involved in the military. According to a recent study by the Rand Corporation, active-duty personnel killed themselves at a rate of 16.3 per 100,000 in 2008, up from 10.3 in 2001. Repeated exposure to combat zones may account for this increase. Some soldiers are sent back three or four times before they’re off the hook.
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Explainer thanks John P. Allen of Veterans Today Network, Robert Bossarte of VA, Kate Dahlstedt of Soldier’s Heart, Rajeev Ramchand of the RAND Corporation, David Rudd of the College of Social and Behavioral Science at University of Utah and Paul Sullivan of Veterans for Common Sense. Thanks also to reader Jim McCulla for asking the question.