*Warning* this post will be controversial, but don’t get it twisted…I want to help solve this veteran suicide epidemic.
*Disclaimer* I am not a trained psychiatrist, Counselor, Shrink, or any other mental health expert. I am just a guy who has done a lot of reading and research. From those experiences, I have formulated my own thoughts about what seems to be some of the driving factors behind veteran suicide, and what seems to help veterans avoid this plague. I’m not claiming to have all of the answers or the perfect solution, but I feel obligated to use my platform for good. Hopefully, this helps!
*Final disclaimer* as always, this article in no way represents the thoughts of the U.S. military or veteran community in general. The thoughts and opinions in this article are my own, and I take full responsibility for what is in this article.
I wanted to start this article by discussing some of the ways that I’ve personally been affected by veteran suicide, but then I realized that this article doesn’t need to be about me at all. Suffice it to say that I, like too many veterans, have lost friends, tragically, to suicide.
In no way, is this article intended to come off as virtue signaling, or as though one method of suicide prevention is better than another. It is simply a different point of view, that I believe needs to be heard.
Before we dig into some of the known causal factors, here are some facts from various studies to mull over.
According to PublicHealth.VA:
- Veterans who had deployed had a 41% higher suicide risk compared to the general U.S. population.
- Veterans who had not deployed had a 61% higher suicide risk compared to the general U.S. population.
- Male service members show almost triple the suicide rate of female veterans’ (per 100,000 service members).
- The suicide rate is highest within the first three years of exiting the military.
According to Health Affairs:
- When veterans who have survived suicide attempts are asked to describe what led them to this action, one of the top three reasons given is “feeling alone.”
According to the American Psychological Association:
- Many blame demographics—85% of the military is male, and men die by suicide more often than women. “But we also know that even female service members and veterans die by suicide at a higher rate than nonveterans and nonservice members,”.
- In addition to demographics, factors such as insomnia, depression, anxiety, sexual victimization, gun ownership, and substance use disorders also appear to contribute to suicide risk among service members and veterans.
According to Recovery First:
- Military veterans are more likely than the civilian population to develop specific mental health problems, like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, and traumatic brain injury (TBI). They are also at higher risk for developing associated substance use disorders. (Both of these conditions contribute to an increased risk of suicide among U.S. military veterans).
The biggest similarity that people appear to have when they are contemplating suicide is mental illness. This could be a result of PTSD, TBI, depression, anxiety, or just feeling alone.
These illnesses can absolutely be brought on as a result of something out of our control, but I believe that viewing them in this light is not healthy. More often than not there are things we can do to prevent the onset of these mental illnesses or things we can do to “cure” them.
Take depression for example. This is not a fun place to be, but getting outside in the sun and exercising regularly can drastically improve your mood. I think one of the best things you could to help a friend who is struggling with depression is to show up at their place and drag them outside to workout. This could be as simple as a nature walk, or as intense as a ruck-run. Just being with a friend, outside, breaking a sweat, will improve their mood dramatically.
On the topic of preventing the onset of these mental illnesses, learn to recognize common situations that crush people’s soul, and avoid them. For example, losing your sense of purpose, or identity, in life can absolutely make you feel depressed. This is soul-crushing for human beings, we need a purpose in life. If you recognize this, and you recognize that veterans suffer from feeling like they lost their purpose and/or identity when they left the military, you can plan ahead to mitigate this stressor.
The Problem with Awareness
There is a trend that is becoming more and more prevalent in the era of social media. That is the trend of “raising awareness” for problems in society. While raising awareness has its perks, I don’t actually think it helps much.
Raising awareness feels good. It allows you to feel like you’re helping. Other than that, it doesn’t do much. I know the only veteran that feels this way either, Derek Weida was quoted by Task and Purpose: “As a community, we’re too obsessed with this number 22,” he says. “We’re too obsessed with PTSD. We’re too obsessed with veteran suicide.” He then adds, “It’s just not helpful. It’s not helpful.”
Let’s be real, every veteran knows that veteran suicide is a problem. Every civilian knows that veteran suicide is an issue. What good does reminding them really do? The harsh reality is, none.
In fact, I would argue that (in regards to suicide) raising awareness is actually harmful.
You read that correctly, I believe that by raising awareness about veteran suicide you might actually be causing more veterans to kill themselves.
I have felt this way for a long time. I have felt that when people talk about suicide all the time, even from the standpoint of raising awareness, it creates a subconscious “out” for veterans who are struggling. Whereas several decades ago a veteran struggling with depression may not have thought about suicide as a solution, now they see it all the time.
In the back of their brain housing group, subconsciously, the thought that “so-and-so killed themselves”, or “so many other veterans have committed suicide to end their suffering”, or even “that veteran got a ton of attention when they killed themselves”. Seeing suicide as a publicized, a common option cannot do anything but hurt our situation.
Low and behold, one day I was reading the book The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell, and he provided an example of exactly this to prove my suspicions.
The Tipping Point – Summary of Chapter 7
“In the South Pacific islands of Micronesia, there was a teenager named Sima. Sima’s father woke up him one morning and ordered him to find a pole knife in town. Sima was unable to find such a knife, and his father was so furious that he kicked Sima out of the house and told him to never come back. Shortly afterward, Sima hanged himself. At the time, suicide was almost unheard of in Micronesia. But within the intervening four decades, suicide has become hugely common in Micronesia—roughly eight times the suicide rate of the United States. The prevalence of suicide in Micronesia is particularly unusual because almost all of the suicide cases are teenaged boys who experience arguments with their families or lovers. Anthropologists have even argued that suicide is an established part of Micronesian culture, expressed and even celebrated in music, literature, and film.” (source)
I fully intended to summarize this chapter in my own words, but LitCharts.com did an excellent job, so enjoy the excerpt from the above.
Ultimately, the point of this entire chapter is that suicide can inspire copycat behavior. In Micronesia, a place that had almost no suicides before Sima hung himself, suicide became commonplace in situations that fell in line with Sima. The bottom line is that suicide is a social epidemic.
This phenomenon is often called the contagion effect.
Behavioral Contagion Effect
According to Wikipedia: “Behavioral contagion or social contagion is a type of the social influence. It refers to the propensity for a person to copy a certain behavior of others who are either in the vicinity or whom they have been exposed to. The term was originally used by Gustave Le Bon in his 1895 work The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind to explain undesirable aspects of the behavior of people in crowds. In the digital age, behavioral contagion is also concerned with the spread of online behavior and information. A variety of behavioral contagion mechanisms were incorporated in models of collective human behavior.”
In essence, the Contagion Effect shows that social behaviors can be contagious. No matter how good, or bad, an action is, if the right person conducts it, others may want to emulate, or “copycat” it.
*Side note, this is why I always say if you want to make real change, just be a good person. Being a good person is contagious as well, remember that.
According to Newsweek: The concern among experts is that celebrity suicides might have a contagion effect, inspiring other depressed individuals to take their own lives. After Marilyn Monroe died from a suspected suicide in 1962, one study found that the national suicide rate spiked by more than 10 percent.” This is an article discussing that when Chester Bennington, the lead singer of Lincoln Park, committed suicide, there was a lot of fear that it would create a Behavioral Contagion Effect.
The article goes on to say that “If somebody is contemplating suicide and they see that someone else has done it, it can encourage them to take that action,”. It can also trigger suicidal feelings in someone who maybe was suicidal in the past.” Irresponsible reporting on the part of journalists—glorifying the death, for instance, or fixating on graphic details—can contribute to that risk. “This kind of media reporting is a risk for people who already have the potential for suicide. Most people will be fine. But the few people who may be struggling now—those are the people that we worry about.”
Another article that confirms my thoughts about suicide subconsciously becoming an option for veterans when they see that others have killed themselves is this piece from Medical Daily: “There is a legitimacy to this hypothesis,” Scott Dehorty, LCSW at Delphi Behavioral Health in Maryland, told Medical Daily. “The suicide of a loved one may give light to the idea that this is really an option, if it gets too hard, that this really is a way out for me.”
An Interesting Irony
Interestingly enough, a lot of service members and veterans I know seem to believe in the Contagion Effect in regards to mass shootings. Throughout the years I have been a part of many conversations where service members voiced their fears that publicizing mass-shootings was only going to lead to more mass shootings.
The thought is that by giving the shooter so much media attention, they are unwittingly glorifying the incident, and other troubled people might think of a mass-shooting as a way to “go out with a bang” (pun intended).
Why then, is it that we strive to bring so much awareness to veteran suicide. Sometimes I almost feel guilty if I don’t participate in these 22-a-day pushup challenges that come around every year or two. It feels as though not participating means you don’t care about the problem, and there is almost a risk of “cancel culture” for a veteran influencer like myself. If the veteran community decides that I don’t care about veteran suicide, it could be devastating for my entire platform, but nothing is further from the truth. I absolutely care about veteran suicide, I just don’t believe raising awareness is the solution.
So what is the Solution?
I’ll be honest, I don’t have all of the answers (nobody does).
I’m not an expert in this field, and I haven’t devoted my entire life to this subject as many have. That being said, I think the solution is much simpler than a lot of us believe.
How can you help yourself?
First, I think we all need to understand that your identity, can’t be 100% tied to the military. Whether you serve 4 years, or 40, your time in the military will eventually come to an end. If my entire identity was “I’m a Marine”, and there is no part of you that understands who David Pere is outside of the Marine Corps, I would struggle a ton when I exit the military. Obviously, being a Marine is a huge part of who I am, but it isn’t my entire identity, and it shouldn’t be yours either.
Second, I think you need to find your purpose in life as soon as possible. I know this is easier said than done but think of it this way. Many people join the military to serve their country. If that is the case for you, how else can you serve your country, after you exit the military? I have found my purpose through building this community in that I get to help service members and veterans achieve financial freedom in order to enjoy the freedoms they defended, once their time in the military ends.
Having a purpose in life will pull you forward in life. It will keep you crushing goals and constantly improving, and it will help you avoid becoming stagnant, and feeling as though you have no sense of purpose in life.
A lack of purpose and lack of identity outside of the military is why you hear about Sergeants Major, and high-ranking officers committing suicide after the military. How else do you explain that somebody with a very successful career could end up down in the dumps about life? They lost their sense of purpose, their identity, and they felt alone in the world. As the depression creeps in, they see that other service members are committing suicide, and boom…they are gone.
How can you help others?
Ultimately, you may not be the one feeling down on your luck (which is great news), but you may have friends or family that are. No matter your feelings about the cause, depression, anxiety, PTSD, and other mental illnesses are real, and they are deadly.
I challenge you to reach out to friends and family that served in the military. Stay in touch, and if you see them becoming reclusive, or “going internal” as we say in the military, talk with them.
Be willing to ask hard questions like “Are you thinking about hurting yourself?” Be ready to help them if they are struggling, and most of all…just be a good person. Be an ear they can talk to, a shoulder they can cry on, and a friend they can count on.
That being said, don’t let them wallow!
I eluded to this earlier in the article, but if your friend is struggling. Show up at their house, drag them outside, and go for a walk, jog, run, ruck, hike, swim, coffee, beer, whatever it is that you can do to get them outside, moving, and talking. Obviously, I prefer the exercise options to the alcohol option, but a cold beer with a good friend is probably better than being sober at home.
You owe it to your friend, and yourself, to get them out of the house, around friends, and exercising. This will work wonders on their mood, and absolutely help them more than you know.
Yes, professional counseling can help. Obviously I wouldn’t recommend against talking with a professional, but don’t discount the effect that you, as a good friend, can have.
Bonus addition from Alex Felice
When I first wrote this I was worried that it would not be received well – in case you couldn’t tell by all of the disclaimers at the beginning – which led me to send it to a couple of friends to see what they thought. One of those friends was Alex Felice, and interestingly enough he agreed with me on this point of view. We decided it would be cool to collaborate on this, and thus the below segment are his thoughts, enjoy!
No one wants veterans to commit suicide, I don’t want anyone to commit suicide, and while I admire and support the goal that this challenge aims to achieve I do have what I feel are legitimate criticisms of this online movement. Taking a position that runs contrary to veteran suicide awareness in any form is not an easy position to take, so when David wrote this article I knew he would need some support and since I shared his overall opinion for me to be silent would have made me a lousy friend to him.
From my perspective, it comes down to this: Is veteran suicide awareness a real passion project for you, or is it just an easy way for you to tell the world you care without having to take any real action? Do you care about this issue, or do you just want to seem like you do? Have you taken any real steps to help veterans who are in need, or is the pushup challenge the entirety of your participation?
Virtue signaling is not new, but it has never been cool to do. Slacktivism is our digital version of this and it’s also not so cool (but there is some data to show it sometimes helps). I see a lot of these 22-a-day pushups challenges and I have been ‘nominated’ a few times myself but to me, it looks like people gaining attention for and talking about themselves, all on the back of social guilt for those who choose not to participate, but I see nothing that has to do with veteran suicide. I certainly admit I’m not really paying attention, which sort of proves my point, it hasn’t raised my awareness to the actual cause and fixes of this issue it’s just guys bragging about doing some push-ups.
While awareness is important, it’s a slippery slope to being shallow. Me doing pushups doesn’t stop people from enduring their personal struggles. I certainly don’t see any evidence that this challenge is helping, but I do see evidence of opportunism. The most actual effort I’ve seen anyone put into this cause is David’s article above where I learned something new thanks to his research, how ironic.
Virtue signaling exists in our current society because we live in a world where nothing is on the line, ever. So instead of being recognized with the honor of our community when we take on risk for something like war or hunting and succeed (the natural way) we instead rely on telling each other we’ve done something honorable (the pathetic way). Virtue signaling is not inherently trusted in our culture because it’s so easily abused, as humans we recognize greatness in each other but if you tell me how great you are I’m only going to roll my eyes. Virtue is earned from our peers through our actions, everything else is vapid.
Here is my take on why suicide is up in the first place: as a species we have lived in the last ~100,000 years working tirelessly to survive famine and war. Conversely, over the last ~80 years, we’ve mostly ended large scale human war, and very few people in America are worried about running out of food. We are safe and our bellies are full and there is nearly no risk at all in our lives, which is the cause of both our virtue-signaling problem and our suicide problem. Humans used to fight enemy nations and climb difficult social hierarchies to earn the honor, these things brought us meaning, they created purpose and kept us busy.
Without these, we are very lost and the best we have been able to come up with to replace them is consumerism, the idea that you’ll somehow find meaning in a new car or fancy clothes. Many find this to be empty and unfulfilling (which it is). Since we solved these big problems humans now have nothing but time on their hands to dwell on this sense of purposelessness and it allows a myriad of other mental health issues to manifest.
When there is no social structure built to give people meaning: A society with nothing on the line, our disconnectedness from nature, our loss of religion, they will turn to suicide.
Push-ups are not a reasonable fix to this problem, and I don’t want to be part of a situation where I’m not helping in any way but would have the audacity to feel good about myself for participating, or worse, to take that empty gesture and let others know how good I am. This is textbook virtue signaling and I do not like it.
Unfortunately, I don’t know how I can help in a productive way and I bet that is what I think most people who have participated here feel. Everyone means well, I don’t want to speak in a way that says people have poor intentions, but we have a poor solution. I went to the website for the organization who started the program this challenge and looked for a donate page
As a group of entrepreneurs the best example I think we could set would be to donate some money. Since we all have been fortunate to make a little money and we all covet money, then giving away our hard-earned money is the most painful approach…which is why it would carry the most weight.
What’s a good number that’s both meaningful and painful, how about $220 each? Let’s back up all this bullshit with at least a little action, and don’t post that you donated this money once you do. I recommend you do it anonymously because bragging about charity is an even more virtue signaling. Make this about the cause, about the veterans who need our help, don’t make this about us. Write the check, and shut the fuck up about it.
Veteran suicide is an all too real enemy.
Rather than trying to raise awareness all across the world, try and be a good friend, and help your friends when they struggle. Maintain the brotherhood and sisterhood that you had in the service, and be there for other veterans.
Find your purpose, and identity outside of the military, and help others find theirs when possible.
Actually be there for other veterans, don’t just talk about being there.
And most importantly, be a good person.
In case you couldn’t tell by all of the disclaimers at the beginning of this article, I recognize just how sensitive this topic is. For that reason, I sent the draft to a couple of my friends to bounce it off them and ensure I didn’t come across in a manner unbecoming to the point of this article.
When I showed it to the cohost of our podcast, Alex, he liked the article enough that he wanted to add to it. Below are his “bonus” thoughts, and I agree with where he is coming from. I hope you enjoy this addition, and look forward to more thought-provoking contributions in the future.