Of all the challenges facing veterans, the alarming suicide rate is the most distressing. The reasons for the increased suicide rates among our nation's heroes are complex, and often involve a combination of potential risk factors such as mental illness, addictions, relationship problems, and financial struggles. Additionally, as noted by Thomas Joiner in his book Why People Die by Suicide, suicidal behavior is contingent upon other unique issues including burdensomeness, failed belongingness and acquired ability to engage in painful, high-risk behaviors.
Veterans forge an incredibly powerful bond around their common values and shared experiences -- more so if their deployment experiences were distressing. Leaving the military and returning to civilian life often leaves them vulnerable to feeling disconnected, and can lead to isolation. Similarly, as veterans age and face new developmental challenges -- including loss of status, diminished physical and cognitive abilities and loss of family and friends -- feelings of loneliness, burdensomeness, and thwarted belongingness can reoccur.
A common, significant thread among many of these risk factors is the concept of connectedness -- "the degree to which a person or group is socially close, interrelated or shares resources with other persons or groups." Connectedness has been identified as an important protective factor against suicidal thoughts and behaviors. Therefore, a key strategy to combating suicidal risk among veterans is enhancing their sense of social connectedness -- within and among individuals, families, and the larger community.
Connectedness can lead to increased social contact, sense of belonging, sense of self-worth and access to sources of support. As a result, in times of stress, connected individuals have greater motivation and ability to cope adaptively in the face of adversity. Recent research on resilience in older veterans found that nearly 70 percent of them who endured a higher number of traumas in their lifetimes are psychologically resilient in later life, and that social connectedness was a factor in promoting resiliency. Additionally, stronger connectedness among community organizations that work collaboratively to identify veterans at suicidal risk and ensure linkage to high-quality services can help to prevent suicidal behavior and promote overall well-being.
Policies and programs that foster a sense of connection and belonging and provide critically-needed services can help ensure the emotional and physical well-being of veterans. The Department of Veterans Affairs has made significant progress in fostering connectedness for at-risk veterans by employing suicide prevention coordinators through every VA hospital in the country, workers who follow up with these veterans to make sure that they are getting all the services they need to stay safe.
However, we need to do more to foster connectedness in the communities where our veterans live. Interventions that may assist veterans in building social connections and becoming better integrated in their communities include peer support, volunteerism, civic engagement, cultural and spiritual activities, and intergenerational programming. Community groups and organizations that serve veterans such as universities, workplaces, veterans' support organizations, aging service programs, faith-based organizations, and civilian-based health and mental health care institutions can promote connectedness and mitigate suicidal behavior by developing a formal network that involves identifying veterans in emotional distress and providing them with mental and social support. Additionally, suicide prevention training for family members, peers, providers, and others who regularly come in contact with veterans can enhance their ability to identify, support, and make referrals for veterans at suicidal risk.
As individuals and community members, we all have an important role in helping our veterans to feel more connected to their communities, their families, their work and play, in ways that bring some sense of worth and meaning to their lives.
If you know a veteran or service member in need, help is available. Call the Veterans Crisis Line for confidential and free help at 1-800-273-8255, press 1, or text 838255.
This article was co-authored by Scott Thompson, LMHC, Director of the Veterans Mental Health Coalition of New York City.