Periodically I wish we were doing a section on this site called "What We Knew, When" because the unfortunate tendency in the world at large, for whatever reason, is to suggest that so little is known about PTSD and combat veterans that we can keep re-discovering it, at great expense and to the detriment of the veterans affected themselves (and their family members, who also have to cope with this).
One case in point that I ran across the other day is this. Back in 1986, before some of the servicemembers in the current war climate were even born, the New England Journal of Medicine reported in a study that veterans were "65% more likely to die from suicide and 49% more likely to die in a motor vehicle accident than non-vets of the same age."
The article's authors affirmed, "We conclude that the most likely explanation for these findings is that military service during the Vietnam War caused an increase in subsequent deaths from suicide and motor-vehicle accidents." (N Engl J Med 1986; 314:620–4.)
I bring this up because even the other day, a civilian wondered -- on hearing the statistics of how many suicides are being reported in the Army -- how the rate of suicide in those who've served compares to the civilian rate. The short answer? It's much higher. The current figures for servicemember suicides are one every 36 hours; for veterans, an also-shocking 18 every day -- and those figures have been valid for a while. (If you want to learn about civilian suicide rates, you'll have to do your own homework here, but the NIMH is a good place to start. The figures are a bit old but periodically update.) As a general point of reference, in 2007 it was known to be twice that of the civilian population.
Periodically new studies arise that make different claims -- a recent one says there's no difference at all, but perhaps their window of "in the past year" was too small -- but as a general rule of thumb, it's higher than civilians and the NEJM reference cited above is an interesting metric about how much higher. It also makes mention of motor vehicle accidents, which have a certain overlap with suicide in terms of method.
Another recent study which seems to have gotten no traction in the news is that suicide is also higher for veterans who've suffered traumatic brain injuries ("TBI"). (The figure they mentioned is 1.55% the rate of non-veterans.) And of course TBI and PTSD frequently go together in recent veterans. This isn't to impugn the current veterans' sturdiness level in some manner, but rather to remind us all perhaps of the higher costs of serving. Let's all keep an eye on this issue, and exercise both compassion and interest as it develops over time.
Editor's note: Over the years, we've written quite extensively on suicide on this site, so there's lots of good information if you want to delve into it further -- from personal essays to suicide maps across the U.S. to even what seems to help forestall or prevent suicide. And of course this section also includes some worthwhile wisdom from the acknowledged "father of suicidology," Edwin Shneidman, M.D., whose words are well worth knowing and remembering.