Report shows veterans are twice as likely to commit suicide

Artists who are also certified counselors led veterans and those wishing to honor them in etching steel plates to add to a sculpture at the Unexpected Art Gallery in November 2016, as art therapy for veterans. (Nicole Neri/DD)

A recent report shows more than 20% of all suicides in Arizona between January 2015 and December 2017 were veterans.

ASU’s Center for Violence Prevention and Community Safety at the Watts College of Public Service and Community Solutions released the report “Sucide Involving Veterans” as part of its Arizona Violent Death Reporting System project. The project’s purpose is to help plan efforts to reduce violent death in Arizona.

Director of the Center for Violence Prevention Charles Katz contributed to the report, which aimed to increase awareness and improve Arizona’s understanding of the demographics and circumstances behind veteran suicides, he said.

“Over the past several years there’s been a number of issues with regard to the mental health and physical health of veterans due to U.S. combat missions in Afghanistan and the Middle East,” he said.“And as a result, a number of soldiers have been coming back and facing a number of hardships.”

The report used data from more than 700 veteran and 2,500 non-veteran suicides across three years in Arizona and found that veterans are twice as likely to commit suicide as non-veterans.

“When they come back they often have a difficult time adjusting back into civil society,” Katz said. “Sometimes it is because of PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder), sometimes it has to do with physical or mental health.”

Male veterans are also more likely to commit suicide than female veterans — for every 100,000 living veterans, 53 men and almost 29 women will commit suicide, according to the report.

“We don’t know why,” Katz said. “We assume that it’s because males are much more likely to be on the front lines.”

For a long time, women were not permitted in some positions in the military. While that has since changed, there is still a disproportionate number of men who are on the front lines, he said.

Katz also said veterans who commit suicide are frequently fairly young.

“Suicide rates for veterans peak at 18-34 years old,” he said.

ASU Downtown campus provides resources to student veterans through the Pat Tillman Veteran Center.

Senior Military Advocate at the Veteran Center Shawn Banzhaf said resources available to veteran students across all four campuses include counseling, quiet spaces to work and places to meet other veterans to talk about their struggles.

Even with the resources, some students who visit the center still have thoughts of committing suicide.

“I’ve talked with student veterans who have contemplated suicide,” he said. “Is it going on around us? Yes it is.”

Chelsea Young, a certifying official at the Veteran Center, said students will come in and express suicidal thoughts.

“It might happen maybe a couple times a semester,” she said. “But not too frequently to the point where we see a lot of it.”

Banzhas served in the military and fought in Iraq. He said he only lost one member of his unit in combat, but since returning home, has lost four of his soldiers to suicide.

“It happens,” he said. “I’m personally affected by that.”

Almost 50% of all veteran suicides in Arizona were veterans with mental health problems, according to the report.

“Now, finally someone is talking about it, because mental health is getting easier to talk about overall, and even for veterans,” Banzhaf said.

More than half of the clients of Catholic Charities of Arizona’s MANA House, a peer-support organization for homeless veterans, have some sort of mental illness or physical limitation, according to the charity’s director of marketing and communications Jean Christofferson.

Christofferson said this is often the case because “(the veterans have) been homeless for quite sometime and they haven’t been able to get any help.”

Once a veteran is accepted into MANA House, they become a “client” and are provided with housing, Christofferson said. The clients are then assisted by case workers to find stable employment, receive medical care — including treatment for mental illnesses — and purchase an affordable home near their work.

“Homeless veterans come in and can stay with us up to a year,” Christofferson said. “Most of the time they don’t even need to stay the full year.”

A new grant from the Department of Veteran Affairs is now allowing MANA House to check up on their clients for up to a year after they have moved out, to ensure they are in a stable and healthy environment, according to Christofferson.

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