Survey: A third of Iraq, Afghanistan vets have considered suicide

Some 2,000 combat vets surveyed by the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America reported 'the crisis with suicide' as their number one concern.

Craig Bailey/Florida Today/AP
Veterans talk during a group session on post-traumatic stress at Baytree Behavioral Health in Melbourne, Fla.

Nearly half of all veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan know at least one fellow US troop who has attempted suicide, and 40 percent know someone who has died by suicide, warns a survey released Thursday by the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA).

The largest nongovernmental survey of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans found that much has improved in America’s care of its veterans, says Tom Tarantino, IAVA’s policy director. Yet there are plenty of challenges that remain – and notable gaps in data nationwide. For example, “We still don’t know how many veterans are alive in this country,” notes Mr. Tarantino, a former US Army captain.

The IAVA survey offers a window into the priorities of the veterans of America’s most recent wars. The survey exclusively sought out combat veterans, who were required to provide proof of their deployments to Iraq or Afghanistan – or both – in order to take the survey. 

The roughly 2,000 veterans who completed the questionnaire reported that their number one concern is “the crisis with suicide.” 

More than half of all respondents – 53 percent – say that they have a mental health injury, and nearly one third of all veterans said that they themselves have considered taking their own life since joining the military.

These are strikingly high figures, says Phil Carter, director of the Military, Veterans, and Society Program at the Center for a New American Security, which may indicate that the combat veteran population has greater need than previously believed, or that veterans felt particularly comfortable sharing their views with the IAVA.

Seventy-two percent of respondents report being satisfied with the mental health care they’re receiving through the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). Still, 68 percent reported having some problems scheduling appointments.

“By and large, once they get that care, they are very satisfied with it,” says Jackie Maffucci, IAVA’s research director. “But the challenge is getting that access.”

Often, the key is encouraging veterans to seek help, and in this pursuit, the survey offered some hopeful news, Dr. Maffucci says: More than three quarters of veterans who had a loved one suggest that they seek care for a mental health injury duly sought care as a result. 

“That’s a powerful number, and a powerful message, to family members, friends, peers,” Maffucci noted. “It’s okay to suggest it. It helps. And when we encourage our loved ones to seek help, that’s what’s going to make the difference.”

As the war in Afghanistan winds down, and with the end of the Iraq War in 2011, veterans report that their ongoing concern remains whether the nation will continue to focus on care for US troops with the same robustness the US public has shown during a decade of war.

Specifically, veterans “are worried that the public is going to forget about them,” Maffucci says. “We need to have the backs of our veterans like they’ve had our backs for the last decade,” she adds. “This is a matter of life and death.” 

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