Are more veterans killing themselves today than after Vietnam?

Answers to your questions about the news.
Sept. 6 2011 7:46 PM

Are Veterans More Suicidal Than Ever?

Comparing the psychiatric death tolls from Vietnam and today.

A veteran. Click image to expand.
Have military suicides increased?

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.  

Advertisement

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.

Got a question about today's news? Ask the Explainer.
 
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. 

Maura Kelly's book Much Ado About Loving, about what classic novels can teach you about mating, relating, and Internet dating, will be out in January. 

TODAY IN SLATE

Sports Nut

Grandmaster Clash

One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.

The Extraordinary Amicus Brief That Attempts to Explain the Wu-Tang Clan to the Supreme Court Justices

Amazon Is Officially a Gadget Company. Here Are Its Six New Devices.

Uh-Oh. The World’s Oceans Have Broken Their All-Time Heat Record.

The NFL Explains How It Sees “the Role of the Female”

Future Tense

How to Keep Apple From Sharing Your iPhone Data With the Police

Food

How to Order Chinese Food

First, stop thinking of it as “Chinese food.”

A Simple Way to Keep Apple From Sharing Your iPhone Data With the Police

The Country Where Women Aren’t Allowed to Work Once They’re 36 Weeks’ Pregnant

The XX Factor
Sept. 18 2014 11:40 AM The Country Where Women Aren’t Allowed to Work Once They’re 36 Weeks’ Pregnant
  News & Politics
Weigel
Sept. 18 2014 8:20 PM A Clever Attempt at Explaining Away a Vote Against the Farm Bill
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 18 2014 6:02 PM A Chinese Company Just Announced the Biggest IPO in U.S. History
  Life
Outward
Sept. 18 2014 4:15 PM Reactions to a Sketch of Chelsea Manning Reveal Transmisogyny
  Double X
Doublex
Sept. 18 2014 8:07 PM Crying Rape False rape accusations exist, and they are a serious problem.
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Sept. 18 2014 1:23 PM “It’s Not Every Day That You Can Beat the World Champion” An exclusive interview with chess grandmaster Fabiano Caruana.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 18 2014 4:33 PM The Top 5 Dadsplaining Moments From The Cosby Show
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 18 2014 6:48 PM By 2100 the World's Population Could Be 11 Billion
  Health & Science
Science
Sept. 18 2014 3:35 PM Do People Still Die of Rabies? And how do you know if an animal is rabid?
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.