Suicide rates among military family members are on the rise

The rate of military family member suicides are on the rise Photo: AP

WASHINGTON, June 17, 2013—The last report tracking military suicides showed that there is no decrease in the rate of deaths by service members own hands and now there are other military suicides that are gaining attention.  

Experts are reporting that they are seeing an increase in the number of military family members killing themselves as well, although the exact rates are not known because these cases are not being tracked at this time.

The growing rate of suicides among the military has been a problem that the chain of command has not been able to get under control since it came to light about 11 years ago.

The report from this past April indicated that there were 11 suspected suicides among active duty Army service members alone in the fourth month of this year.

The same report stated that among all branches of military there have been 161 potential suicides in that month. That averages out to one every 18 hours.

Suicide rates among military personnel have risen steadily during the time that our country has been at war. Since 2001 at least 2,700 service members are believed to have committed suicide and in 2012, there were more deaths in the services than there were from combat.

Suicide in the military is a very serious problem. Historically the suicide rates have been lower in the military than those rates found in the general population. However, with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, military suicide rates have increased and surpassed the rates for society at large.

The Department of Defense has taken steps to increase suicide prevention efforts. They have ordered command stand downs, mandated classes on suicide prevention, created videos, and encouraged leadership to ensure that all commanders are taking care of the Service members under their care.

Research that was funded with the hope of understanding and therefore preventing service member suicides has revealed that soldiers who experienced multiple concussions during active service are much more likely to have suicidal thoughts than those who sustained just one injury or never had a concussion, the Los Angeles Times reported.

But additional research indicates that the suicide trend is not restricted to soldiers who have served numerous deployments as was often suspected. As much as 80% of the confirmed suicides were not combat veterans. Common factors do include post-traumatic stress syndrome, but also substance abuse, failed relationships, as well as the repeated head injuries.

Now the alarming trend has emerged of family members committing suicide when they feel unable to cope with the stress and strain of being the support system for a family affected by a combat death or injury.

According to Clinical Psychologist Thomas Joiner the desire for suicide is created by two factors working on each other all the time.  A person has to perceive themselves as a burden to others and they also have to feel alienated from others, not an integral part of a family, circle of friends, or other valued group.

This is what seems to be happening to the families of military members.

An example is the Velez family, before Army Spc. Andrew Velez left Texas, he asked his fragile sister to write him a promise before he went to Afghanistan.

Monica Velez knew she owed him that much. In the horrid weeks after they had lost their brother, Freddy Velez, to enemy fire in Iraq, Monica tried to end her life with pills and alcohol. Now, she put pen to paper: “I will not hurt myself. I will not do anything crazy. I know that Andrew loves me. I know that Freddy loved me.” Andrew folded her note and slipped it into his pocket.

“Don’t break your word to me,” he told her before heading back to war.

Seven months later, Andrew, 22, sat alone in an Army office at a base in Afghanistan. He put a gun to his head and committed suicide. Back in Texas, word reached Monica Velez who, once again, found herself in a dangerous place. Only now, she was alone. Days of alcohol and anti-depressants. Nights of dark thoughts: “It would just be better if I was gone.”

Some of the family member suicides have stories similar to the Velez’s who have lost loved ones in combat but others are sparked by exhaustion and despair as their loved ones are returning with noticeable and unnoticeable injuries and the spouses realize all that will be required of them for the foreseeable future.

Kristina Kaufmann, a long-time Army wife, knows of three other Army wives, all friends, who took their lives in recent years. “When you know that you are the anchor — and if you go down, the family’s going down — the problem is that you can only do that for so long,” said Kaufmann. “That population (of spouses) is at the most risk. Because the storm is going to happen when everybody comes home. That’s where we are, unfortunately, going to see an uptick in lots of negative outcomes, including suicide, including suicide among the spouses.”

Kaufmann argues that military-family suicides should be tracked and researched by the Department of Defense to help mental-health experts to slow or stop the problem. She knows, however, such an accounting is not likely since it took years and immense pressure before the DOD was willing to keep numbers on suicide rates of the military personnel themselves.

Army officers at Fort Hood have occasionally asked Monica Velez, who now lives in Austin, Texas, for ideas to help them prevent the rising military suicide rate. She watches that tally, too.

“The numbers take my breath away. I know it can be overwhelming for the Army generals on the other end of the table trying to figure this problem out. Because it’s like an airborne disease going through the building and you’re trying to figure out how to stop it before it gets to you,” she said. 

“But it’s coming at a really fast rate, and it’s inevitable.”

 

 


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Susan L Ruth

Susan L. Ruth is a long-time Washington, DC resident with extensive ties throughout the community.  She is a genealogical researcher and writer, and is an active volunteer in the Northern Virginia competitive swimming community.  Susan previously worked providing life-skills to head injured adults. 

Susan and her husband Kerry currently live in Northern Virginia with their three sons, Ryley, Casey and Jack and their American Bulldog, Leila.

 

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