Don't abandon our female veterans to staggering risk of suicide

Don't abandon our female veterans to staggering risk of suicide
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Earlier this month, the Department of Veterans Affairs released an updated version of its “Veteran Suicide Statistics by State” report, the most comprehensive examination of veteran suicide in American history which analyzed over 55 million records from 1979 to 2014 from all 50 states and four territories.

One of the most staggering public health statistics in this report was the rate of female veterans’ suicide rate: 250 percent higher than civilian women.

Over the last 13 years, the suicide rate among women veterans increased to a greater degree (62.4 percent) than the suicide rate among male veterans (29.7 percent). Equally disconcerting is that women veterans (over two million, or 10 percent of the veteran population) are the fastest growing subgroup of veterans but many say they often feel invisible in society.

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What are the reasons for this shocking trend?  Some speculate that female veterans are more skilled and comfortable handling weapons, the most frequent suicide weapon of choice. Firearms were used by 40.5 percent of women veterans who died by suicide (compared to 31.1 percent of U.S. civilian adult women who died by suicide).  

Other research indicates that men and women who join the services have often experienced difficult childhoods, including emotional and sexual abuse. Additional insights indicate that the trauma from surviving a military sexual assault can be insurmountable for some. This is alarming given past estimates that 23 percent of active-duty women had experienced some form of assault prior to or while serving in the military.

Other data indicates a sense of invisibility and lack of connectivity both in the military and in society once transitioning to civilian life. In fact, suicide rates rise sharply after leaving service.

While some pundits speculated that the release of the VA information on a weekend was a convenient way to sweep the issue under the rug, upon closer examination, the data is actually not new. The report is ostensibly a state-level update to a report issued by the VA last August that corrects minor inconsistencies in the 2016 findings.

As it stands, however, those who disparage the VA for publishing this information could deter women from seeking support. Furthermore, the disparagement overlooks key takeaways: Although the suicide rate increased overall for women veterans from 2001 through 2014, the suicide rate decreased by 2.6 percent for women using VA services during this same time period.

Over the last few years, the VA has made a vigorous effort to assess risk factors for women and aggressively improve services, including outpatient and inpatient programming, specialty treatment for post-traumatic stress, substance use disorders, depression, and suicidal ideation as well as support for treating effects of military sexual trauma.

The VA services aren’t a panacea, though, especially for those who don’t live near VA clinics. What might be more helpful are local opportunities offered by non-profits, through which veterans may gain a new sense of purpose and connection.

Of the 40,000 veteran organizations offering services, a minute number have proposed these programs and even fewer have offered funding for existing initiatives. Even the big national non-profits that are focused on veteran support initiatives have a dearth of programs that are exclusive to women. Corporations who might support these programs seem unmoved by the statistics. We’ve been told frequently and verbatim by corporate funding entities that “they have sponsored their woman’s event for the year.”  Checking the box isn’t going to save female veterans lives any more than simply tweeting about the problem does.

Improving access to women-specific programming matters for many reasons, not in the least because opening up in group therapy sessions with men who may have dismissed women’s service or even been perpetrators of harassment or assault can be difficult if not impossible, so many women opt out of co-ed programming and therapy altogether.

Earlier this year, Paula co-hosted with fellow service women a “women warriors writing workshop” in Tampa, Fla. The published mission was to provide skills training to aspiring female veteran historians, memoirists, novelists, and op-ed writers. Our implied mission, however, was to help create small tribe and provide mental health support for our sisters in need.

Besides learning of their valor, adventures and inevitable mishaps along the way, several common issues surfaced in our discussions:

  1. Most women said they had never been a room with all female veterans in the past.
  2. Many women, including one of the authors of this column, had experienced depression or suicide ideation following some trauma in life but had avoided seeking VA help.
  3. All of them were eager for support and connectivity but many were challenged to find it in their civilian lives.
  4. Many of us feel our voices don’t matter; just look at the Army Chief of Staff’s recent recommended reading list (one of 115 authors is a woman, despite the plethora of excellent literature by female academics and historians.)

The takeaways for us in subsequent months (and the reason we have self-funded additional gender-specific programming) was a realization that women quite often feel isolated while in and after leaving the uniform. They crave connection with others who share their experiences. Transition can be a lonely and demoralizing experience, especially when one lacks the ability to translate her skills to the civilian workforce and cannot convince corporate managers that leadership matters as much as industry experience.

While most of us value our military experiences, some of what we’ve endured can have life-altering effects. Of course, male veterans also experience some of these life setbacks, but men tend to have greater male-specific veteran programming and male-only networks. And frankly speaking, are more readily recognized and honored for their service. (Just google the terms “military” or “veteran” and notice the paucity of female profiles.)

In sum, the VA didn’t bury the lede last weekend. The information is nearly two years old.  The sad truth is that the statistic didn’t warrant much more than a tweet in either 2015 or today.  It’s time for that to change.  The VA needs help promoting its venerable services to female veterans in need. More veteran support organizations need to create women-specific initiatives, such as Her Mission Continues, a program run by The Mission Continues. Family members could benefit from understanding the signs of depression and mental health challenges.  

And to our sisters in arms, please reach out if you need help.

If you or someone you know is at immediate risk for suicide, contact the Veterans Crisis Line: Call 1-800-273-8255 and Press 1, text to 838255, or chat online at VeteransCrisisLine.net/Chat.

Paula Broadwell is the director of the Think Broader Foundation, a co-host of On Point Women Warrior Writing Workshops, and an Army veteran.

Dr. Kate Hendricks Thomas is an assistant professor of Public Health at Charleston Southern University and a U.S. Marine Corps veteran