Good news about military suicides is always a double-edged sword. In our never-ending search for “why,” we ponder why male veterans kill themselves at double the rate of their female peers, according to a recent accounting from the Department of Veterans Affairs. Maybe there’s a clue there we can apply to the guys.
But then you learn that female veterans are 2.5 times more likely to kill themselves than their civilian sisters, and the good news fades to black.
That surprising number has been relatively constant, although rarely noted, since 2001. And there are more startling numbers: since 9/11, the suicide rate for female vets grew by 62.4%, alongside a 29.7% hike for male veterans. Among women, the suicide rate grew fastest for those under 40. And more female veterans, familiar with what the VA calls “highly lethal” firearms, are killing themselves with guns compared to civilian women (40.5% vs. 31.1%).
Then there’s the elephant usually in the room whenever men and women mix: “In one recent study, VA researchers found the rate of suicide to be higher among women who report having experienced military sexual trauma (MST)—that is, sexual assault or sexual harassment during military service—compared to those who have not experienced MST,” the VA reports. An estimated one in four female vets reports being sexually assaulted or harassed while in uniform.
There is nothing sadder than to lose someone in battle. But what if that battle is raging inside your head? There’s no battlefield heroism to ease the sting of death, no answers for the forever-wondering loved ones (active duty troops and vets, please call 1-800-273-8255, Press 1, for help if you’re feeling suicidal).
Military and veteran suicides were among the toughest stories I covered during my nearly 40 years as a reporter, especially when they surged in the long years following the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq.
There was the Coast Guard officer who killed himself in 1996, after cracking a couple of off-color jokes at the Coast Guard Academy in New London, Conn. A soldier who killed himself—and his family—in Wisconsin in 2010 after coming home from Iraq. The day in March 2012 when a pair of Army officers, one a West Point graduate and AH-64 helicopter pilot who served in Iraq, the other a doctor, decided to end it all. The Army psychologist who helped suicidal soldiers in Iraq and taught me a lot about military mental health (listen to one of our conversations here), who ended up taking his own life in 2013.
Tellingly, these were all men. That’s because so many more men than women, inside and out of the military, kill themselves. Women account for only about three of every 100 veteran suicides, the VA’s inspector general noted in 2015. But beyond that, why do so many more female veterans kill themselves than their civilian counterparts? Like all questions posed by suicide, the answers are many, sometimes contradictory, and frustratingly incomplete. So are the possible solutions.
About 20 veterans kill themselves each day—more than 7,000 a year. Nearly two-thirds are over 50, and most were not regular users of VA services. A number of studies have shown no clear link between overseas deployments and suicide. The rate at which troops and veterans killed themselves used to mirror that of the civilian population, they now have a suicide rate roughly 20 percent higher than their civilian peers.
In June 2016, President Obama signed into law the Female Veteran Suicide Prevention Act to spur the VA to determine which programs are best-suited to curb such deaths. “Establishing which mental health programs are most effective for women veterans will go a long way in ensuring they are receiving the best care possible, tailored to their unique needs, and will help inform the national dialogue on what works to prevent suicide,” Kayla Williams, an Army veteran of Iraq now serving as director of the Center for Women Veterans at the VA, said shortly after Obama signed the bill into law. “VA recognizes that gender-related issues can be important components of care, and the Female Veteran Suicide Prevention Act gives us more tools to analyze the data so we will be able to focus our resources on the most effective treatments that bring the greatest satisfaction to women veterans and save lives.”
Not surprisingly, female veterans—especially those involved in mental health—are sounding the alarm. Post-military support for female vets is lacking. “When women get out we don’t have the same large support network of veterans and veteran-support groups that men have,” says Dr. Ellen L. Haring, a West Point graduate and Army vet now serving as a senior fellow with the nonprofit Women in International Security organization. “We generally don’t feel welcome in traditional Veteran Service Organizations [groups like the American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars] so we don’t use them the way men do.”
If women are outsiders inside the military—and they often are—they also remain outsiders once they leave. “Lower levels of cohesion on active duty combine with a lack of recognition and social/structural support as we become civilians to produce poor health outcomes,” believes Dr. Kate Hendricks Thomas, a Marine veteran who is now a professor of health sciences at Charleston Southern University.
Thomas and 20-year Army Vet Paula Broadwell wrote a column on the topic last month, where they noted common threads running through their conversations with female vets. Most had never been in a room with only female veterans, many shied away from the VA despite thoughts of suicide, and many felt the military doesn’t listen to women (they cited the Army chief of staff’s reading list, where only “one of 115 authors is a woman, despite the plethora of excellent literature by female academics and historians”).
The Army’s one-time top uniformed psychiatrist agrees. “Based on my observations, but not on much published data, women veterans are less likely to feel connected after they return to civilian life,” Elspeth Ritchie says. The male orientation of many post-military support services need tweaking to help ensure female veterans “are housed, employed and have child care.”
Ironically, part of the problem may be that, unlike civilian women, female troops have become familiar with the tools of death. “Clinical intuition indicates that women who have had training with firearms, and work in an environment that is dangerous and exposed combat, are more likely to use violent methods to commit suicide,” says Dr. Steve Xenakis, a psychiatrist who served in the Army for 28 years before retiring as a brigadier general. That means that more of them succeed. “In a sense, the military is an equalizing and egalitarian environment that offers opportunity, but with unintended consequences.”