Staggering
June 10, 2015 7:01 AM   Subscribe

New U.S. government research indicates that female military veterans commit suicide at nearly six times the rate of other women and at rates nearly equal to that of male veterans -- a finding that surprised researchers because women are generally are far less likely than men to commit suicide. The findings raise questions about the backgrounds and experiences of women who serve in the United States' armed forces.

Summary
* This was a cross-sectional study published in Psychiatric Services, which compiled 11 years' worth of data from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).
* The first study to directly compare veteran and non-veteran suicide risk while differentiating veterans by Veterans Health Administration (VHA) service use.
* Research compiled 11 years of data, covering all 173,969 adult suicides — men and women, veterans and non-veterans included in the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs suicide data archive — in 23 states between 2000 and 2010.
* Annual standardized mortality ratios (SMRs) were computed for veterans compared with non-veterans and for veterans who used VHA services compared with veterans who did not, overall and separately for males and females.
* The new data, which cover about half the veteran population, show that suicide rates rise sharply after service members leave the military.
* Women veterans' suicide rate (28.7 per 100,000) increased over a 10 year period, and is so high that it approaches the 32.1 rate of male veterans.
* Suicide rates are highest among young veterans
* For women ages 18 to 29, veterans kill themselves at nearly 12 times the rate of non-veterans.
* In every other age group, including women who served as far back as the 1950s, the veteran rates are between four and eight times higher, indicating that the causes extend far beyond the psychological effects of the recent wars.
* Male veterans 50 and older — the vast majority of whom served during the draft era, which ended in 1973 — had roughly the same suicide rates as non-veteran men their age. Only younger male veterans, who served in the all-volunteer force, had rates that exceeded those of other men.
* Overall, suicide rates for all veterans remain significantly above their civilian counterparts.
* Seeking help works. Suicide rates of veterans who seek care within the VHA system appear to have declining absolute and relative suicide rates. Of the 22 suicides a day, only about five are patients in the VA health system.

Factors
* “Their rates are astronomically high and climbing,” said Jan Kemp, VA’s National Mental Health Director for Suicide Prevention. “That’s concerning to us.” Reasons for the increase are unclear, but Kemp said the pressures of leaving military careers, readjusting to civilian life and combat injuries like post-traumatic stress disorder all play a role in the problems facing young male vets.
* LA Times:
"Claire Hoffmire, the VA epidemiologist who led the research pointed to recent research showing that men and women who join the military are more likely to have endured difficult childhoods, including emotional and sexual abuse.Other studies have found that Army personnel — before enlistment — had elevated rates of suicidal thinking, attempts and various mental health problems. Those studies did not break out the numbers for women.

Though the U.S. military has long provided camaraderie and a sense of purpose to men, it has been a harsher place for women. "They lack a sense of belonging," said Leisa Meyer, a historian at the College of William and Mary in Virginia and an expert on women in the military."
Further Reading
2012 report from the Department of Veteran Affairs, on the effectiveness of their suicide reduction program, which began in 2007. Report was written by Drs. Kemp and Dr. Robert Bossarte, who conducted the most recent study with Dr. Hoffmire.
posted by zarq (39 comments total) 26 users marked this as a favorite
 
The Pentagon has estimated that 10% of women in the military have been raped while serving and another 13% subject to unwanted sexual contact, a deep-rooted problem that has gained attention in recent years as more victims come forward.

I can't even with this.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 7:08 AM on June 10, 2015 [8 favorites]


Defund the DoD.
posted by Slinga at 7:12 AM on June 10, 2015 [6 favorites]


This is not the kind of equality we're looking for.
posted by Etrigan at 7:33 AM on June 10, 2015 [14 favorites]


The military is a massive machine designed to turn healthy people into cripples, empty husks, or mulch. That a significant percentage of those people are the ones serving that machine rather than the direct object of the machine's purpose is acceptable to those who fund and run it.
posted by chimaera at 7:39 AM on June 10, 2015 [9 favorites]


* Research compiled 11 years of data, covering all 173,969 adult suicides — men and women, veterans and non-veterans included in the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs suicide data archive — in 23 states between 2000 and 2010

Just to put this into perspective, in 2013, there were just over 41k deaths attributed to suicide. If we do simple math and divide 173k by 11, and then take a percentage, veterans account for almost 40% of deaths by suicide over that 11 year period!*

*I don't have time to do a more thorough analysis, but if you look at charts of the number of deaths by suicide per year, you'll see that there is actually a dip between ~2000 and 2011, so likely the percentage attributable to veterans is higher.
posted by OmieWise at 7:55 AM on June 10, 2015 [2 favorites]


The second factor was Cesena's use of a gun, a method typically preferred by men.

In the general population, women attempt suicide more often than men but succeed less because women usually use pills or other methods that are less lethal than firearms. Female veterans, however, are more likely than other women to have guns, government surveys have shown.

In the new data, VA researchers found that 40% of the female veterans who committed suicide used guns, compared with 34% of other women — enough of a difference to have a small effect on the rates.


I wonder how they're quantifying small effect on rates. But nothing excuses the current limited mental health treatment available for veterans.
posted by beaning at 7:56 AM on June 10, 2015


The Pentagon has estimated that 10% of women in the military have been raped while serving and another 13% subject to unwanted sexual contact, a deep-rooted problem that has gained attention in recent years as more victims come forward.

Yeah, my first thought was, "maybe it's all the rape." Sexual assault & unwanted sexual contact are always horrible, but the military environment must make it so much worse. The sexist, macho culture, strict power structures, and inability to just quit must make women feel powerless and trapped.
posted by Mavri at 8:02 AM on June 10, 2015 [8 favorites]


I had that thought at first, too, but estimates of rape and sexual assault for women in general are, I think, higher than 10%.
posted by OmieWise at 8:07 AM on June 10, 2015


but estimates of rape and sexual assault for women in general

The problem, of course, is that in this case, it's not random, horrible men that are assaulting these women. It's members of our military.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 8:12 AM on June 10, 2015 [5 favorites]


Rape is rarely "random," its usually by men close to the victim.
posted by agregoli at 8:14 AM on June 10, 2015 [2 favorites]


Well, sure. It's horrific and a huge problem. I'm not discounting it, I'm just not sure it explains these suicide statistics. RAINN says that 4/5 of sexual assault perpetrators, and 47% of rapists, are someone the survivor knows.
posted by OmieWise at 8:15 AM on June 10, 2015


May 4, 2015:
"Sexual assault in the U.S. military is occurring at a much higher rate than the Defense Department has previously admitted, a new report released Monday revealed.

After investigating more than 100 sexual assault cases that took place on four large domestic military bases, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), a ranking member of the Armed Services Committee, released a damning critique of the Pentagon's response to the problem, which included what she said were lenient punishments and a culture of disbelief of the victims.

In the report, titled Snapshot Review of Sexual Assault Report Files at the Four Largest U.S. Military Bases in 2013 (pdf), Gillibrand looked at cases which occurred at the Army's Fort Hood base in Texas, the Naval Station Norfolk in Virginia, the Marine Corps' Camp Pendleton in California, and the Air Force's Wright-Patterson Base in Ohio.

She found that nearly half of survivors who filed unrestricted reports later dropped their cases in the process of filing. And according to the DoD's most recent sexual assault report (pdf), "62 percent of women who reported a sexual assault perceived some form of retaliation—a rate unmoved from previous reports despite a commitment to change the climate," the report states.

"I don't think the military is being honest about the problem," Gillibrand told the Associated Press on Monday."
We cannot trust the Pentagon to self-report about the frequency of rape by (and of) military servicemembers. Their statistics are suspect.
posted by zarq at 8:15 AM on June 10, 2015 [6 favorites]


Numbers do vary. From Wikipedia, "According to a 2011 Newsweek report, women are more likely to be assaulted by a fellow soldier than killed in combat.[8] 25% of military women have been sexually assaulted, and up to 80% have been sexually harassed.[9]"
posted by Dashy at 8:15 AM on June 10, 2015 [2 favorites]


I was responding to roomthreeseventeen, not your comment, OmieWise.
posted by agregoli at 8:16 AM on June 10, 2015


Odds are pretty high that an assault survivor in the military either works for or alongside her attacker, and that means living in relatively close quarters as well. It's incredibly difficult to get away from people, especially if it happens during a deployment, or when you're on a base somewhere away from your family and other support structures.
posted by Etrigan at 8:17 AM on June 10, 2015 [2 favorites]


Rape is rarely "random," its usually by men close to the victim.

Sorry, I didn't mean strangers. I meant people of random profession.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 8:17 AM on June 10, 2015


I would think support structures would also affect a person's response to sexual assault or rape; if you can get somewhere that feels safe, like home or a friend or family member's house, and you can be with people who love and support you and talk to them about your experience, the outcome is probably very different from if you're in a scary, hostile environment, the one in which you were assaulted, and you aren't allowed to talk about or process what happened, plus you're far away from many of the people you love.
posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl at 8:19 AM on June 10, 2015 [2 favorites]


Also healing from sexual assault can be aided if the victim is in a supportive environment. Watching The Invisible War made it clear that victims of sexual assault in the military are NOT in such an enviroment.
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 8:19 AM on June 10, 2015 [1 favorite]


I was responding to roomthreeseventeen, not your comment, OmieWise.

Me too.
posted by OmieWise at 8:23 AM on June 10, 2015


I had that thought at first, too, but estimates of rape and sexual assault for women in general are, I think, higher than 10%.

Is it 10% have been raped ever in their lifetimes or 10% have been raped during their years of military service? If the latter, that rate is much higher than for civilian women over a similar period of time.
posted by Jacqueline at 8:30 AM on June 10, 2015 [2 favorites]


Good point. I think it must be the latter given the context.
posted by OmieWise at 8:38 AM on June 10, 2015


The suicide rate for male veterans is probably impacted (graphic descriptions) by rape as well. There seem to be some elements of military culture that just encourage a dehumanizing view of people. The compassion and understanding necessary to help the victims and confront the criminals is just not present in the way it should be for a 21st century military.

I have family members who are officers and have had to be responsible for confronting issues regarding sexual assault, and they are good people who care and do their best...but the system just isn't set up to do much besides put them in an impossible situation and it's one of the most frustrating parts of the job. The issue needs more resources and more expertise.
posted by Drinky Die at 8:39 AM on June 10, 2015 [4 favorites]


There seem to be some elements of military culture that just encourage a dehumanizing view of people.

Military training practically requires people to develop mechanisms for dehumanizing others. It's actually quite hard to get people to kill each other without doing so. The problem is that it is almost impossible to rein in dehumanizing thinking once it has been inculcated and encouraged.
posted by kewb at 8:48 AM on June 10, 2015 [9 favorites]


The military is a massive machine designed to turn healthy people into cripples, empty husks, or mulch.

This was the main thing I took away from the movie American Sniper. Even if none of the soldiers sent into a combat zone are wounded or killed, a HUGE chunk of those soldiers should still be considered casualties as soon as they're deployed. The person they are went the left is not the same person who comes back and almost always in a way that's bad for them, their families, society in general, and usually all of the above.
posted by VTX at 8:54 AM on June 10, 2015 [1 favorite]


The Pentagon has estimated that 10% of women in the military have been raped while serving and another 13% subject to unwanted sexual contact, a deep-rooted problem that has gained attention in recent years as more victims come forward.

I can't even with this.


13%? 13%? Who the fuck is doing this bullshit bean counting? More like 70% if we're going by 'unwanted sexual contact'.
posted by corb at 9:13 AM on June 10, 2015 [8 favorites]


I mean, it was mostly okay once you got to your unit and settled in, but before that you were considered fair game for a whole lot of bullshit.
posted by corb at 9:22 AM on June 10, 2015 [3 favorites]


There seem to be some elements of military culture that just encourage a dehumanizing view of people. The compassion and understanding necessary to help the victims and confront the criminals is just not present in the way it should be for a 21st century military.

I think it's more than this. You're talking about a system that places the good of the cohesive military unit and one's fellow soldiers above all. In theory that should mean that those who are raped would be protected by the people they serve with, and rapists shunned, rejected and pushed out of the group to preserve order and the effectiveness of the unit. But instead, the victims aren't believed. They are treated as disruptions and attacked and retaliated against by their fellow soldiers.

Lack of compassion and empathy play a part. Dehumanizing people plays a part. Lack of properly trained personnel as well. But the system rewards and protects rapists and tries to destroy their victims, when it could just as easily go the other way. The rape victim is presumably seen as a weak link, and the rapist lionized. The victim is dehumanized, even though they should not be considered the enemy. That is an institutionalized mindset which needs to end, before the problem can be properly addressed.
posted by zarq at 9:30 AM on June 10, 2015 [5 favorites]


a finding that surprised researchers because women are generally are far less likely than men to commit suicide.

This is not the kind of equality we're looking for.

Military training practically requires people to develop mechanisms for dehumanizing others.


I wouldn't argue that war is completely unnecessary. I would argue that it's about the worst thing that we humans do. The fact that, over the past few decades, women have become more and more part of machinations that make war possible (ie: the military) leaves me not particularly surprised at the sort of statistics being referenced here.
posted by philip-random at 9:36 AM on June 10, 2015


Military training practically requires people to develop mechanisms for dehumanizing others. It's actually quite hard to get people to kill each other without doing so.

A hundred times that.
I'm a Vet - here's what happens:

Say you're an average kid who joins up. Maybe you need some college, maybe you just need a job. You believe your ten commandments, you don't pull wings off flies and maybe you even believe that you're doing your patriotic duty.

They put you into an eight week training session that is designed to break you down as an individual. You are repeatedly told you are no longer an individual - that you are government issue. Then they give you a weapon and teach you how to kill people with it - and still it's no big deal because it's all on videos and games and all you're shooting is little green targets that only vaguely look like people.

Then they "activate" your untill and you get send to B.F. Egypt (not really in egypt) and next thing you know someone is shooting at you and, like you've been trained to, you shoot back. Or maybe they didn't even start shooting - it doesn't really matter because next thing you know you're looking at the person that you shot. Maybe they're bad old Al Queda. Maybe they're the wife or the little boy or the little girl of the bad old Al Queda (it happens). It doesn't matter because you are looking at a dead body that you killed. Hooo ra.

And you will never in your life, if you are not a psychopath, be able to reconcile your ten commandments and all the morals your mom and pop taught you about , all those things that you've been taught , that you've carried about all your life with the dead man/boy/girl/woman you killed today. Then tomorrow you go out and do it again.

So you decide to not tell anyone about it when you get home. Who can you tell? What can you say? You did your job. Just like you were supposed to do. And you carry that around with you forever - if you are lucky. And if you're not ....

This is why we should NEVER go to war without a LOT of national debate (oh, btw F.U. Congress). Because the dirty little secret that no one wants to talk about is that you do NOT just kill the enemy but you also kill your sons and daughters. You kill their souls.
posted by AGameOfMoans at 9:44 AM on June 10, 2015 [34 favorites]


The second factor was Cesena's use of a gun, a method typically preferred by men.

In the general population, women attempt suicide more often than men but succeed less because women usually use pills or other methods that are less lethal than firearms. Female veterans, however, are more likely than other women to have guns, government surveys have shown.

In the new data, VA researchers found that 40% of the female veterans who committed suicide used guns, compared with 34% of other women — enough of a difference to have a small effect on the rates.


It seems like they'd have to look at suicide attempts, not just completed suicides, for this comparison to make any sense.
posted by jaguar at 9:49 AM on June 10, 2015 [2 favorites]


I mean - okay let me take this seriously and settle down. Why have I, and the female military veterans I know or have known, either considered or attempted or committed suicide?

In part because once we're out, we're considered disposable. We're not heroic or macho enough to be treated well, to get the massive benefits out there for Iraq & Afghanistan vets. The majority of women have not deployed, because they tend to keep women in support roles - and try getting veteran bennies without a deployment ribbon. People ask - 'Were you OIF/OEF?' One of my friends, who successfully killed herself, was technically not. She never set foot on the ground. But she treated burn victims of those combats for a year. Ineligible for mental health care or really much else, booted with a bad discharge, because she was considered by some to be 'not a veteran of the war' and thus couldn't have PTSD.

The standards for PTSD, I'll note, were relaxed, but mostly for male combat veterans. Because the Army pays you for PTSD. So if you deployed, and you say you have combat PTSD, there's a presumption that you do in fact have it. You don't have to prove the specific incident. But if you either didn't deploy, or did deploy but were raped instead, you have to prove it. Prove you were sexually assaulted and that your PTSD comes from there. There is no presumption that you're telling the truth. There is no parity. Women get their MST (Military Sexual Trauma) claims denied much more than men do their combat PTSD. In fact, the very system is set up to consider their trauma lesser. On the VA online form, when you click 'PTSD' as your injury/issue, to file a claim, they ask about where the incident of combat was. If you want to mark MST, you have to go back and find 'PTSD- Personal'. (And God forbid you have complex PTSD from combat AND rape) You don't get the broad heading. And that means that while men are often rolling in their disability money, women are struggling.

There's also very little acknowledgement that men and women often present differently. The docs are looking for the more masculine presentations of PTSD. I got diagnosed pretty easily, because my PTSD manifested at the time as pure rage. But women who didn't join as young as me, who maybe have more compassion left, turn it inwards. They attack inwards rather than outwards. Their self destructiveness is not as visible. Good luck getting a diagnosis with that presentation. And with the VA being too underperforming for individual therapy, half the time the therapy offered is 'group', where you get shoved in with a bunch of guys who want to forget the monsters they were when they were in.

Because let me be clear for a moment. I have never, not once, been in a unit where I didn't know at least a few rapists. Sure, once I got established they wouldn't try to rape me. It'd be like "Corb, you're one of the boys! You're safe. You're like my sister! Tell me if someone looks at you funny and I'll beat the crap out of them. That's settled? Good! Now let me tell you about this cunt I fucked the shit out of. She never saw it coming! You're not a killjoy, are you? You're not an outsider, are you?" And let me tell you that life is beyond miserable for people who are part of the unit but not considered with the unit. And it is a special kind of hell - it kills something in you - to know that the way to your own survival is to pretend you don't care about women outside the unit. To laugh at their godawful jokes. That's the monster you become.

And when you finally talk honestly, because your safety doesn't depend on those people anymore - if you do - about your time in service, there are the accusing eyes of other veterans. Aren't you with us? What are you trying to say about us? You know that what happened over there is supposed to stay there. Why would you talk about how horrified you were when we were knocking over Iraqi stores? Why would you talk about how awful you found it when we 'tricked' foreign women into sex? Why would you call us these things? Can't you see we're trying to adapt?

So, yeah. Tl;dr: there is very little community for female veterans once they get out, for a lot of reasons. We are not reaping the rewards of all these much touted vet programs.
posted by corb at 9:53 AM on June 10, 2015 [128 favorites]


Tl;dr: there is very little community for female veterans once they get out, for a lot of reasons. We are not reaping the rewards of all these much touted vet programs.

So VERY true - not that the VA is being very proactive helping any Vets. I knew a woman who had served in Iraq. Got hit by an IED while in a vehicle. Walked with a pronounced limp because both her legs had been heavily damaged. They sent her home.

When she got home the VA denied/procrastinated her disability claim. Don't ask me why - it doesn't make sense to me either. She could not work. She had no money. She was Black.

Ended up in a homeless shelter for Vets (they have those) while she argued with the VA. While there she got bitten by a brown recluse spider on her finger - lost the finger tip. Started having psych issues (who wouldn't??)

In the six months I knew her she never did get her V.A. disability. She got blown up in a god forsaken war that benefited no one save the current Vice President and his cronies at the time. She got sent home with nothing but two crippled legs.

She's not the only one.
posted by AGameOfMoans at 10:10 AM on June 10, 2015 [12 favorites]


thank you for sharing all of that, corb.
posted by nadawi at 10:13 AM on June 10, 2015 [18 favorites]


It sounds to me like the VA would save a lot of money, time, and effort if the standard for having PTSD were changed to "are now or have been in the U.S. Military" not to mention that they'd obviously help a lot more veterans.
posted by VTX at 10:14 AM on June 10, 2015 [2 favorites]


Seconded. Thank you, corb. So glad you made that comment.
posted by zarq at 10:15 AM on June 10, 2015 [6 favorites]


Wow, corb, that was brutal and enlightening. Thank you.
posted by KathrynT at 10:30 AM on June 10, 2015 [6 favorites]


What AGameOfMoans said, and then some.

I have lived through the paradigm shift: WWII was a horrific event that followed the other horrific event that preceded an never-ending series of lesser horrific events. On an individual scale the are all the same. You don't get any deader than dead and when you are the one rifling the pockets of the guy you just killed it gets no more personally world changing than that. Not much is said about the other part, where you and your team are locked, loaded, and online. Come and get us, motherfuckers, and we will show you what fire and maneuver can do to disrupt your daylight trigger finger.

The peripheral events are all the same: survivor guilt, the oops factor, how come I didn't do more. I want to tell the folks at home about this, but, well, no, I don't. Not really. Out in the tertiary are looks in the eyes of the women who sent their children to garbage dumps to scavenge our mess hall slop, the stuff we've dumped off the back of our trucks. Some of the guys even laugh when the slop splashes the dirty little buggers, but they turn their heads so as not to have see the faces of their mothers. Not me. I was always compassionate. I never called them zipperheads, gooks. It would be different if we spoke the language or knew anything factual about the reasons for the conflict, but somewhere along this continuum the normal psychological backflips required to do a good job of soldiering went south. We do torture. If it's our oil how come we don't get any of it? There is no actual enemy, only an amorphous them. Hell, this bitch probably hides them in her house. Fucking Christ she probably is one of them herself, and she teaches her kids to hate Americans. They come into focus only after we a few quarts of their blood spread out on the ground, or blow off some body parts--you can watch this from home, you know. Like a video game. Get some! But somehow they inflict real damage to us in ways that our technically superior military forces can't seem to manage. How is that possible?

I came into this movie as a seventeen year old high school graduate (1963), having watch all the relative John Ford movies. I got trained in the theory. I read the rules on the card, and they still make me swell with some sense of something: I am an American Fighting man. I serve in the forces which guard my country. I am prepared to give my life in its defense. I spent a year on Okinawa playing with the toys, training, before they sent us down south to do it for real. In my case, it was May, 1965.

Yet I was a new guy, and it was us and the lifers, many of whom were simple-minded pukes that couldn't hack it at a Mickey Dees, so they stayed in the military, their home. But after a while I saw that it wasn't so simple. Some of them were American fighting men, dedicated to the service of their country, and they were prepared to give their lives in its defense. I knew some heroes. Really.

Soldiering takes its toll. On Okinawa the professionals (guys who'd been in for a couple of hitches) got to bring their families and live on or off base in family housing. It was still hard on the families. In peacetime you move from base to base, post to post, at the pleasure of the military. You are guarding your country, and you family must cope. Divorce rates are high.

Then comes the string of endless combat tours, back to back, for reasons that just don't make any sense. No civilian outrages come to help you. During Vietnam we boiled in dissent. There is a point to this.

Now women are more accepted into combat roles than when I was a soldier. I would have welcomed them--anywhere they wanted to serve. I have seen enemy women do good soldering and I know it can be done. Americans are stupid about some things. Rape is a disgrace. It's not just a personal problem, it's an institutional problem. If you can split the infantryman's mind to the extent that he can hold his infant child on Monday and get a pink mist at 800 meters on Tuesday, you'd think you could get him to not rape the soldier next to him. Go figure. I cannot put myself in your shoes, but I beg to you understand how offensive it is for me that any of my brothers would treat you this way.

Anyhow I am trying to get to the point, but I know you understand that the path is always crooked. Can you step back far enough to see the handbasket to hell that carries us both? It's Johnny go fuck-your-self you fucking disgusting animal, until they bang on the gates, then it's Oh Johnny please get back up on the wall.

The point. Okay there is a point. The suicide rates for women approach those of other soldiers. Welcome to the club, my sisters in arms.
posted by mule98J at 10:34 AM on June 10, 2015 [21 favorites]


Thank you also, mule98J.
posted by KathrynT at 10:43 AM on June 10, 2015 [3 favorites]


i have to wonder how many were "suicides" like LaVena Johnson.
posted by poffin boffin at 11:23 AM on June 10, 2015 [2 favorites]


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