Every three days, an Oregon veteran takes his or her life.
According to the latest data from the VA, Oregon veterans commit suicide at a rate that is significantly higher than the state’s general suicide rate. In Oregon, veterans represent only 8 percent of the population, but account for 16 percent of the suicides.
Veteran advocates across the state and nation are investing significant resources to address the issues believed to be risk factors for veteran suicide. Both nationally and in our state, data is informing the policy and funding to address the core issues impacting veteran suicide. This data is also influencing how we do outreach and the community partners that are crucial to ending this crisis.
Taking a hard look at the data helps advocates identify groups with a high risk for suicide that might otherwise be overlooked, like the aging population (55 and older), which in our state, comprises 60 percent of veteran suicides.
“As a veteran, these numbers are deeply painful to me,” said Kelly Fitzpatrick, newly appointed director of the Oregon Department of Veterans’ Affairs. “When we were in service, our most basic instinct was to protect the one on our right and the one on our left, and those instincts don’t just go away after we leave the service.”
Suicide has become a public health concern that causes immeasurable pain among individuals, families, and communities across the country. Veterans specifically, are committing suicide at a much higher rate than that of the general population. The VA estimates that the national number of veterans who take their own lives is 22 people every single day.
“Every single one of those 22 veterans matters in infinite ways,” Fitzpatrick said. “Every veteran matters. Each has served his or her county and the impacts of their service are as unique as they are. Although veterans all gain great strength from serving our country, it’s not surprising that many of us also face challenges when reintegrating back into civilian life. These challenges can easily lead to crisis, depending on the individual’s experiences, support network (or lack thereof) and other factors.”
On average, 70 percent of veterans who end their lives never engaged the VA for services. Just as every veteran matters, so does every accessible wraparound service to address the myriad of risk factors that increase the likelihood of a veteran taking their own life. Major risk factors include: a prior suicide attempt, mental health conditions, stressful life events such as the loss of a major relationship, job loss, the death of a loved one, and the availability of lethal means.
Veterans may have additional unique risk factors from their service that increase their likelihood to commit suicide including a service-related injury (mental and physical), and life transition from military service to civilian life. Both of these factors, left unresolved may increase their likelihood of choosing to end their life.
And this work is not happening only on a national level. Here in Oregon, Gov. Kate Brown has made it one of her administration’s top priorities to end veteran suicide in our state, by taking concrete steps to ensure at-risk veterans have adequate access to care, housing and mental health treatment.
Veteran advocates need the community’s help to raise awareness of veteran suicide and the resources that exist. Oregon veterans need to know that regardless of the life circumstances, there is an entire community behind them who understands and has the best expert help and resources available to help them address the very real life issues they are experiencing.
“We must also work together to remove the stigma associated with asking for help,” Fitzpatrick said. “Military service members undergo rigorous training to be self-reliant, so the challenge of admitting you are facing something you can’t overcome on your own is often harder for veterans than civilians. Other veterans are key in this. Those who have faced mental health challenges can offer great strength and courage to veterans in crisis simply by being open and honest about their own stories.”
Any veteran or person concerned for a veteran in crisis can call the confidential 24/7 National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255). Veterans PRESS 1. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline website has crisis and longer-term self-care information for veterans, as well as information for friends and families who are concerned for their loved one, including finding support, asking for help and stories from survivors of suicide attempts.
For assistance in accessing and learning about the local, state and federal veteran benefits and resources like service-connection compensation, pensions, employment, education, housing, or other veteran services, contact Oregon Department of Veterans’ Affairs or a county veteran service office.
Statewide contact information, along with additional benefit and resource information, is located online at www.oregon.gov/odva.