Alarming new research shows the rate of suicide in veterans may be far worse than previously thought.
The study, conducted by America’s Warrior Partnership with Duke University and the University of Alabama, analyzed data across five years in eight states, including Massachusetts.
Operation Deep Dive found at least 44 veterans end their lives every day in the U.S. – that’s 2.4 times higher than the Department of Veterans Affairs’ rate of 17 deaths per day.
“What we found was the medical examiners and coroners classify an overdose as an accident 80% of the time, as an undetermined 90% of the time, when in actuality, it’s a suicide,” Jim Lorraine, president and CEO of America’s Warrior Partnership, said. “It’s huge, it is the biggest, without a doubt, the biggest killer of veterans for premature death is overdose. Not firearms, it’s overdose.”
Lorraine said the goal of the research was to create a complete picture of the suicide crisis among veterans in order to better address it and prevent further deaths. “It’s about building a relationship with them before the crisis occurs,” Lorraine said. “If you can improve the quality of life for veterans, their suicide rate will go down.”
Lorraine said helping veterans access meaningful employment, housing, physical health and mental well-being will help to lower suicide rates.
Army veteran and Sutton resident David Shanahan agrees.
“We need that purpose to pull us through the darkness,” Shanahan said. “That ends up being a problem for a lot of people. [When they served] they were doing this job, they felt really important. There was real pride in it for them, and then they come home, and it’s just finding a sense of purpose.”
Shanahan has found purpose in sharing his story with other former service members who have struggled.
“It was the end of March 2021, just kind of still in the throes of the pandemic, and I had decided that I just didn’t want to be around anymore,” Shanahan said “I didn’t want to live.”
Shanahan texted a friend who he had served with, and within a couple of hours, he was in the emergency room at Massachusetts General Hospital. From there, he spent a couple of weeks at McLean Hospital.
“It was scary at first, I mean the psych ER is no joke,” Shanahan said “But once I got there and I accepted that this was really my chance to save my life, I really just kind of leaned into it and got a lot out of it.”
Shanahan said there is no quick fix, and he anticipates he will be working on his mental health for his whole life. He recently completed a two-week outpatient program through Home Base where he connected with veterans of all ages and backgrounds.
“There’s so much power in our stories and power in sharing,” Shanahan said. “You just have to believe that life is worth fighting for and that that overseas, we wouldn’t have left any friends behind, so we have to do the same now and look out for each other.”
Shanahan wants other veterans to know they are entitled to help regardless of what their time in service looked like.
“Trauma isn’t a contest,” said Shanahan. “If you need help just get it don’t worry about where are you stack up with other people.” Lorraine hopes the findings from Operation Deep Dive will show people that there isn’t a one size fits all method when supporting our veterans and their mental health.
“We’ve been doing the same thing for all of these years and nothing has changed,” Lorraine said. “We have to do something different. We have to look at it differently.”
Operation Deep Dive analysis discovered those who served in the military for less than three years were at greatest risk for suicide. Receiving a demotion during military service increased the risk of dying by suicide by 56%.
Veterans who served in the Coast Guard were most likely to die from suicide, followed by the Marine Corps, the Army, the Navy and the Air Force.
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