Firearm Suicide Risk in Service Members and Veterans

Possession of firearms is undoubtedly a risk factor for suicide. Although it is not the only risk factor, it is important and certainly the most lethal. Firearms are a common method of suicide among veterans with high rates of gun ownership. According Statistics, suicides account for 3 in 5 gun deaths, and every day about 60 Americans die by gun suicide. Of those 60 people, between 17 and 22 are veterans. And in the US military, firearms account for the majority of suicide deaths.

It is important to address the risk of suicide in veterans and military service members, and as a clinical research psychologist who has studied suicidal behavior and firearm injuries in service members, I believe that effective prevention strategies can be of great benefit. help reduce these numbers and ensure that veterans and service members get the help they need.

Facts, statistics and factors

He US Department of Defense (DoD) reported that in 2022, firearms were the leading method of death by suicide for service members and their families, and the majority of service members who died by suicide were young, enlisted men. Veterans have a 50 percent higher risk of suicide than their non-service peers, and while “Veterans make up about 7 percent of the U.S. adult population and account for 18 percent of gun suicide deaths in the country”.

But there are ways the risk can be minimized and service members and veterans who own or have access to guns can ensure safer and more protective measures for themselves and their family members. Of course, this goes for anyone who owns or has access to a firearm.

The following tips and considerations are intended for everyone, but especially for veterans, deployed and post-deployed service members, and their families and loved ones.

  • Access and storage of firearms.

If a service member or veteran is a gun owner and is having a mental health crisis with suicidal thoughts or behaviors, an easily accessible firearm can be deadly. Delaying the time and distance of access to firearms can reduce the risk of suicide and save lives. One way to do this is to ensure that firearms are safely and properly stored, locked, and unloaded in a storage facility or a location that requires some time and effort to access and open.

  • Service-Related Stressors

Military personnel are under pressure that we, as civilians, cannot imagine. Service-related stressors include combat or line-of-duty injuries, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other psychological disorders, loss of fellow service members, adjustment to life and work after deployment, or major transitions such as go from military to civilian. life and any disciplinary action that may result in a loss of honor or advancement in the military.

Personal circumstances and challenges can be difficult for all of us, but for service members and veterans, some of the interpersonal factors that affect their mental health and suicide risk include isolation with limited social and family support, history of abuse , relationship problems, substance abuse or alcohol abuse, financial and/or legal problems, and living in areas with limited access to health services, especially mental health.

  • Geographic location/considerations

Where a service member or veteran resides and that state’s gun control laws make a difference. The fact is that the risk of gun suicide is lower in states with stricter gun control. Veterans tend to live in states with easier access to firearms and are more likely to own firearms than civilians, increasing overall suicide rates in those states. Considering age, gender, mental health disorders, Veterans Affairs accessibility, and distances to healthcare facilities, it is not surprising that rural areas experience higher rates of veteran firearm suicides. than the urban ones.

The role of mental health in gun ownership

While mental health disorders are not significantly associated with gun ownership, research shows that conditions such as panic disorder, intermittent explosive disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) influence gun carrying behavior among recently separated U.S. military personnel. Post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms, including exaggerated threat perception and severe hyperarousal, have also been linked to unsafe firearm storage and elevated risks of suicide by gun. of fire among veterans.

Exposure to high-intensity combat, which can affect mental health, increases the probability of possessing firearms and being suicidal. Compared to non-deployed service members, suicide rates are lower among currently deployed personnel, but significantly higher in the period immediately following first deployment. Suicide rates increase even further during the first year of separation from the military. And in our research, we found that military punishment and perceptions of failure or humiliation in the month before death increased the odds of suicide in active-duty soldiers.

Studies show that although service members with suicidal ideation and depressive symptoms are not more likely to own firearms, they are more likely to practice unsafe storage, including carrying a gun in public and storing loaded/unlocked firearms at home . One study found that 1 in 3 veteran firearm owners keep at least one of their firearms loaded and/or unlocked. This is concerning given that unsafe storage is linked to a three-fold increase in the risk of firearm suicide.

Conclusions

There are many things that still need to be investigated and identified regarding the risk of firearm suicide. Part of my work aims to understand why we still miss so many cases of suicide among service members and veterans. Firearm suicide is preventable, but we must ensure better risk screening methods, access to support, education and resources, and focus on developing suicide treatment specifically targeted at service members and veterans.


Disclaimer: The opinions and statements expressed here are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences, the Department of Defense, or the Henry M. Jackson Foundation for the Advancement of Health. Military Medicine. , Inc. Mention of trade names, commercial products, or organizations does not imply endorsement by the U.S. Government.

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