In the wake of the Uvalde and Buffalo shootings, a lot of attention is focused on mass shootings (defined as when four or more people are killed) and the urgent need for effective gun control legislation to stop the endless cycle of children and other victims being gunned down in our country. The numbers are mind-numbing. From 1998 to 2019, 101 mass shootings occurred in the United States. France, the developed nation with the next highest number during the same time period, had eight. The U.K., Australia, and several other developed countries had one. Closer to home, the loss of 11 lives in the 2018 shooting at Pittsburgh L’Simcha Congregation (Tree of Life) synagogue remains fresh in our memories, and currently, an average of 33 Pennsylvanians are killed by gunfire every week.
Mass shootings, murders, robberies, and other criminal acts involving firearms are not the only manifestations of out-of-control gun violence in the United States. Deaths due to accidental discharges of weapons and suicides using firearms are often overlooked in gun-control debates. As a veteran myself, my thoughts this past Memorial Day turned to the troubling use of guns in suicides among our veterans and the need to improve mental health services and other suicide-prevention measures for those who have proudly served our country.
In 2019 (the latest statistics available), 6,261 U.S. veterans committed suicide. That’s a shocking 17 per day. Firearms were used in 68% of veteran suicides in 2019. The suicide rate for veterans is 50% higher than the rate for nonveteran adults, and suicide is more prevalent among middle-aged and older veterans.
Veterans are particularly at risk for suicide because they are more likely than the general population to own guns and have been trained on how to use them. About half of veterans own at least one gun, compared to only one-third of all U.S. adults. Guns are the most lethal method of suicide, with 9 out of 10 suicide attempts using a gun resulting in death. Guns are used in more than two-thirds of veteran suicides, compared to about one-half of nonveteran suicides. The availability and effectiveness of firearms significantly increase the risk of fatality when a veteran attempts suicide.
In response to the alarming number of veteran suicides, the Department of Veterans Affairs has made suicide prevention its highest clinical priority. In 2018, the agency created a 10-year plan to address veteran suicide. The VA offers coordinated, evidence-based solutions, which include ensuring access to quality mental health services for at-risk veterans.
Suicide is a complex problem, but it is preventable. The VA has made encouraging progress in preventing suicides among veterans, especially with respect to crisis intervention. It has also increased its focus on expanding treatment and prevention efforts to address issues that arise before a suicidal crisis. The VA emphasizes that veteran suicide deaths occur as a result of a complex interaction of risk and protective factors at the individual, community, and societal levels. Mental health conditions, service-related injuries, the availability of guns, and job loss or other stressful life events are veterans' primary suicide risk factors. Protective factors include feeling connected to other people, resilience (a trait often strengthened by military service), and easy access to mental health care. Preventing veteran suicide requires minimizing risk factors and maximizing protective factors.
Although VA efforts have reduced veteran suicide, the agency needs community help to reach at-risk veterans better. About half of all veterans do not seek or receive services or benefits from the VA. All of us can play a role in preventing veteran suicide by helping connect veterans to VA services, local mental health and health-care providers, and community resources.
For family members and friends of veterans, being familiar with the VA’s S.A.V.E. (Signs, Ask, Validate, Encourage) Training program will help you act with care and compassion if you know a veteran who is in crisis or experiencing suicidal thoughts. Veterans can also play an especially pivotal role in preventing veteran suicide. Having experienced military service, veterans better understand — and enjoy a unique camaraderie with — fellow veterans. If you’re a veteran, give back to the veteran community by exploring the VA’s suicide prevention resources and help build local networks among veterans organizations, community-based organizations, and other community members to strengthen suicide protective factors for at-risk veterans. Veterans and nonveterans should contact their congressional representatives to encourage them to increase funding for the chronically underfinanced VA, emphasizing mental health services. We can lend a much-needed helping hand to the men and women who have served and sacrificed for our country.
Mark Pinsley lives in South Whitehall, Lehigh County. He is Lehigh County's controller and the Democrat running for state senate in the 16th District, which now includes Upper Bucks County.
This article originally appeared on The Intelligencer: Op-Ed: Those who proudly served need our help to combat veteran suicides