Members of National Guard, Reserves Account for Over Half of Vet Suicides
> 2/13/2008 2:12:35 PM

The rate of suicide and attempted suicide among soldiers has increased in recent years, reaching a high point in 2006 when the suicide rate among active-duty soldiers rose to 17..5 per 100,000. The national rate is 11 per 100,000. In response to these alarming trends, the government has begun analyzing the available data on suicides among veterans of the current wars, and so far, their findings offer a clearer glimpse into the situation. According to data released yesterday by the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), 53% of all veterans who committed suicide between 2001 and 2005 were members of the National Guard or the Reserves.

The research, which was conducted by the VA's Office of Environmental Epidemiology, offers the first demographic perspective on the suicide rate of veterans who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan. The report reveals that 144 veterans committed suicide between 2001, when the war in Afghanistan began, and 2005. Of those who took their lives, 24% had served in the Reserves, while 29% had served in the National Guard. The report also found that in more than half of suicide cases, the veteran was between the ages of 20 and 29, and about three-quarters of the suicides were carried out with the use of a firearm. Only about one in five of the veterans had been assessed at a VA facility at least once. Although the VA has taken steps toward improving their mental health services, including creating a suicide hot line, greater efforts are needed.

The rise in suicide rates among among soldiers and veterans can be partially explained by the extended deployments that so many have endured. Soldiers experience extreme stress, are away from their family and friends for long periods of time, and may have problems readjusting to civilian life. For members of the National Guard and Reserves, the need to juggle both a civilian and military life may exacerbate these problems, making the transition between the two even more difficult. Members of the National Guard and Reserves represent 28% of the troops serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, although at some points in 2005 they comprised nearly half of the troops fighting in Iraq.

Today, in a Capitol Hill hearing, VA Secretary James Peake discussed the report's findings and acknowledged that the VA must take further steps to ensure the well-being of soldiers returning home from Iraq and Afghanistan. One commenter, Senator Patty Murray, D-Wash., who is a member of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, provided another explanation for why veterans of the National Guard and Reserves might be more vulnerable to suicidal thoughts and actions:

"I know members of our Guard and Reserves oftentimes don't think of themselves as veterans, they see themselves as going back to their same jobs; they sort of disassociate themselves with the VA system."

For all soldiers and veterans, the stigma of getting help for a mental disorder poses a serious obstacle to therapy. For members of the National Guard and Reserves, who might already feel distanced from the VA, the barriers to therapy could be even greater. The VA should take steps to help all veterans seek treatment for any mental health problems they may experience, but this report indicates that programs aimed specifically at making members of the National Guard and Reserves aware of the services available to them would also be beneficial.

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