I was shocked to learn that about 20 percent of the 32,000 people who commit suicide every year in the U.S. were veterans. Even more horrifying was the revelation that, according to a recent study, female veterans are about three times as likely as their civilian peers to commit suicide.
This is something that Mark Kaplan, a researcher at Portland State University who conducted the study using information collected about female deaths by suicide in 16 states, wants us to take seriously. “When we think of suicide, and suicide completion, I don’t think we often think of women enough,” he told NPR. “That’s my point.”
Female veterans often have to deal with very different issues than their male peers. Because of the high incidence of sexual assault in the military and the military’s tendency to ignore and underplay accusations of assault or refuse to punish the rapists, women have to deal with the traumatic aftermath of rape without any of the support they need; they also struggle with returning to their children and families. The director of the Department of Veterans Affairs’ National Suicide Prevention Hotline explained,
“They worry that because they sometimes get angry and don’t deal with things well that they won’t be appropriate with their kids.”
It’s true that although women are more likely to be depressed and attempt suicide, men are far more likely to complete suicide. This means that our discussions of gender and suicide are often skewed toward men, especially among veteran populations, which until recently were almost exclusively male. What I’d like to see is a comparison of female and male veteran suicide rates, which the NPR article didn’t mention.
But in any case, the pressures of being a female soldier are clearly making it very difficult for female veterans to integrate successfully back into civilian life, and that’s something that the U.S. military needs to address. Otherwise, the problem will just get worse.
Photo from the U.S. Military.