On Veterans Day, we must talk about suicide prevention

On Veterans Day, we must talk about suicide prevention
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Every year as Veterans Day approaches, I feel a renewed sense of pride and connection to my fellow sisters and brothers in arms. But I also get a pang of sadness as I think about how many of my fellow veterans are struggling. After serving our country honorably, so many veterans return home only to face other battles — mental health challenges like post-traumatic stress disorder and depression, uncertainty and tension about fitting into civilian life, and economic anxiety in an ever-changing job market.

The COVID-19 pandemic has intensified many of these battles. As we see an uptick in the number of people struggling through anxiety and depressive disorders nationwide, veterans have been hit especially hard. A survey of over 28,000 post-9/11 veterans released at the end of September this year revealed that about half reported that their mental and physical health worsened during the pandemic, and 30 percent reported having suicidal thoughts within the last two weeks. 

Veteran unemployment has tripled as a result of the pandemic. Many of the traditional financial and social services provided by Veteran Services Organizations have been cut off as a result of COVID-19 related impacts. Tragically, preliminary reports indicate that military suicides have increased by 20 percent in 2020 compared to the same period last year.

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This is horrifying, but it is real.

We must look for ways to combat this crisis. That must include providing better mental health care for veterans, including finding innovative solutions to cope with the isolation COVID-19 has forced upon us. We must also fix the systems that allowed over half of veterans to have their mental health appointments canceled or postponed. 

There is also a simple step that veterans and their loved ones can take in their own homes that can save lives.

Every day, 17 veterans die by suicide — and 12 of those (69 percent) die from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. Research shows that easy access to a gun in the home increases the risk of suicide death by 300 percent. Simply put, the lethal nature of firearms greatly increases the risk of a fatal outcome in a suicide attempt. Reducing veteran suicide deaths starts with acknowledging the role that guns play and taking action to combat it.

What does this action look like? It looks like gun owners, including veterans, taking it upon ourselves to practice safe storage in our homes. It means keeping guns locked away, unloaded, with ammunition stored separately when we’re not using them. It means when we conduct “buddy checks” on one another, asking questions about guns in the home and how they are stored, and sharing the facts about guns in the home and suicide. 

Veterans, myself included, have unique relationships with guns. Their lethality is not theoretical to many of us, nor is the sense of protection that they can provide. It is why it is even more crucial that we are reaching out to each other to have these conversations early and often and modeling good behavior in our own lives. I know this from experience—a buddy check-in my time of crisis saved my life.   

Safe storage saves lives: many suicide attempts are undertaken impulsively during moments of temporary crisis, and delaying someone’s access to a gun by even a few moments offers them an opportunity to reconsider making a tragic and irreversible decision. 

These practices are how we best address all forms of “family fire,” a general term for gun violence that results from improperly stored or misused guns found in the home. The Ad Council and Brady introduced this term with a national PSA campaign in 2018. Results show that simply being aware of this issue prompts people to look into safe storage practices, with the power to prevent unintentional shootings, murders and suicides.

Nearly half of all veterans own at least one firearm. And while there are myriad reasons why a veteran or any American may own a firearm, the most commonly cited motivation is self-defense. While some people fear that storing guns locked and unloaded will inhibit this capability, studies have shown that firearms in safes are almost instantly accessible in an emergency — while still reducing the risk of suicide for the gun owner and their family.

If we want to honor our veterans this year truly, we must take action: from improving our mental health systems to locking up guns in homes and having more conversations about the risks of gun suicide. Rather than just platitudes this Veterans Day, we can offer real solutions to help struggling Americans who have sacrificed so much for our country, and we can save lives. 

Kyleanne Hunter, Ph.D., is a U.S. Marine Corps combat veteran who served multiple tours in Iraq and Afghanistan as an AH-1W “Super Cobra” attack pilot. She currently serves as the inaugural Sarah Brady Fellow at Brady, an assistant professor of Military and Strategic Studies at the United States Air Force Academy, and a senior adjunct fellow at Center for New American Security. The views presented here are the author's own and do not represent the Department of Defense's official position or any employer.