By Mike Cason Photo Srdjan Randjelovic
Researchers at the University of Alabama are trying to learn more about why veterans are more likely to die by suicide than other people, an effort they hope will show where communities can step in and save lives.
The university is working with America’s Warrior Partnership and the Bristol-Myers Squibb Foundation on Operation Deep Dive, a four-year study.
Karl Hamner, director of the Office of Evaluation at the UA College of Education, said researchers will try to find out how much social isolation leads to suicide, including poorly understood deaths that are not linked to post-traumatic stress disorder or a history of mental health problems.
Across 14 communities nationally, including Mobile, they will interview families and friends of veterans who died by suicide to see if they spent their days with people they cared about or stayed mostly alone.
“Did they have a social network?” Hamner said. “Did they have friends? How close were they? What was their family connection like? Do they go to church?”
Hamner said previous research has shown that isolation and loneliness can be as harmful as smoking a pack of cigarettes a day.
“Our argument is we need to look upstream at those factors of isolation and loneliness or hopelessness and find points of contact where we can engage veterans in a more effective way,” Hamner said.
The study will identify differences between communities with high rates of veteran suicides, like Atlanta, and those with lower rates, like Houston, Hamner said.
Researchers will compile four years of data about veterans who died by suicide, including their military service history and whether they received services from the Veterans Administration, an effort to better understand a national problem striking veterans of all age groups, men and women.
In 2016, the suicide rate for veterans was 1.5 times greater than for non-veterans after adjusting for age and gender. (The veteran population is older and has a higher proportion of men than the non-veteran population; suicide is more prevalent among men).
The problem appears to affect Alabama as much or more than most states.
In 2016, 128 veterans in Alabama took their own lives, a rate of 34 per 100,000 people, higher than the national rate for veterans (30) and much higher than the rate for Alabama’s population overall (20), according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
Public officials and others in Alabama are bringing new attention to the problem. The Legislature approved a resolution sponsored by Rep. Neil Rafferty, a Marine veteran, creating a Veterans Suicide Task Force. Alabama Department of Veterans Affairs Commissioner Kent Davis named retired Army Reserve Major General Paulette Risher of Huntsville to chair the group.
Risher, CEO of Still Serving Veterans, has recruited Hamner to advise the task force.
Davis, who became head of the state DVA in February, said the work is not just an academic exercise but a search for information that can be applied to saving lives.
“What are the factors in Alabama that are unique to the state that are causing the high rate?” Davis said. “And secondly, what are the assets that we can mobilize to combat that issue in Alabama? I think it’s going to do some good, I really do. There’s a lot of interest. Everywhere I go I get asked about it. People say, ‘Wow, it’s about time.’”
Nationally, the suicide rate is rising fastest among younger veterans, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs. From 2005 to 2015, the rate for veterans ages 18-34 rose from about 28 per 100,000 people to about 45 per 100,000. The overall suicide rate in that age group was 16 in 2016.
Hamner said he believes the problem is worse than the numbers show because suicide is under-reported. He said most people who take their own lives don’t leave a note or state their intentions. Coroners and medical examiners generally lean toward not classifying death as suicides if there is some doubt because of the stigma and loss of benefits to survivors, Hamner said.
PTSD is a contributing factor to suicide for veterans but not a dominant factor, Hamner said. It’s not clear that combat exposure or multiple deployments raise the overall risk of suicide, he said, and those experiences might even be protective, he said.
The loss of identity that can follow leaving military service, whether that service involved combat or not, is hard for many veterans to overcome, Hamner said.
“The studies of veterans and transitions all point to veterans saying they don’t fit anywhere when they come home,” Hamner said. “Not their family, not their community, people don’t understand them. They don’t want to be asked, ‘Did you kill anybody?’ All of these things you hear from veterans.
“So they’re isolated. If you don’t believe your situation’s going to change, you’re hopeless.”
Hamner said Operation Deep Dive can shed light on better ways to connect with veterans and help them overcome the loss of identity, loneliness, and other problems that may haunt them after their military careers end.
Hamner summed up the importance of the effort by paraphrasing the words of Rita Nakashima Brock, author of the book “Soul Repair: Recovering from Moral Injury after War.”
“As long as we are going to send our sons and daughters to war, we as a society have an obligation to walk with them on their journey home,” Hamner said. “It’s about not ignoring the human need and cost of the people who stepped up to defend the country. Welcome home and thank you for your service and having a parade doesn’t do it.”
YOU ARE NOT ALONE
If you or a Veteran you know is suffering from PTSD, Anxiety, Loneliness or Depression, you are not alone.
The – Minds At War – Crisis Support Helpline Number is open 24/7 and a First Responder is on call at all times.
- 0800 031 4368
You can also ring this same number during normal hours and seek advice, support and guidance.