In 2012, the Department of Veterans Affairs released the numbers from its 2012 Suicide Data Report, which stated that 22 veterans a day committed suicide. It was an extraordinary number—and a harrowing slap of the reality facing so many of our post-military population. By 2014, that number had—fortunately—dropped to 20. By 2016, it was even lower.
The number used to talk about the issue, however—22—never budged.
Today, even though the most recent VA report shows that around 17 veterans will commit suicide every day, you will still see the number 22 used consistently among non-profits, service organizations, advocates and others. And while the foundational message is still relevant and remains unchanged—far too many in our veteran community leave by their own hand—we have inadvertently created a culture in which no amount of progress is noted or can be celebrated.
(Of course, that isn’t even considering the fact that those numbers may be completely wrong, according to new study that suggests actual numbers may be as high as 44 veterans a day instead of 17. Or, the fact that the rate shifts when limited by gender, active status or even the time of service.)
Even as I write this I am bracing for the inevitable kick-back that will likely accompany my argument, but I’ll go ahead and say it: It’s a sad, dangerous place we find ourselves in, for two major reasons. First, we never show the progress that has been made; and second, we may stop paying close enough attention to the real matter at hand.
Sure, there are many, many organizations who keep a close eye on these reports (as we do at The RECON Network, for the primary reason that finding meaning and purpose and mental health are inextricably linked), and many who are on the front lines of this fight. But as a culture, we’ve created a catchphrase that tells the rest of the population—the ones not necessarily paying close attention—a completely different story than the one that actually exists.
Through the eyes of those not intimately familiar with the data (or the issue as a whole), the “22” that has not changed for over a decade tells a very simple (and incorrect) story: there has been no progress.
That means there is no result to the many actions of thousands of service organizations who are doing everything in their power to protect each and every veteran that they come in contact with. Effectively, the hard work and dedication of thousands of advocates within the post-military space is erased.
And while I don’t know anyone who would celebrate the fact that today we will lose 17 individuals who have served our country, and that it will happen again tomorrow, just as it happened yesterday—the fact is that it is still 23% less than it was before. And there is room to both celebrate that sort of progress—and use it as a way to show the rest of the world it can be done—and focus on the next task at hand, which is having no death to show on the report at all.
Unfortunately, without a solid grasp on the true data (or as true as we can hope for, considering the many obstacles to accuracy that exist), how can we accurately address the issues in front of us? And while having a common rallying cry is no doubt effective in tugging on heart strings, it doesn’t help us identify who the most likely candidates for suicide are, and intercede before it’s too late. And it doesn’t tell the larger story—that veterans are twice as likely as their civilian counterparts to commit suicide. Or, that in 2020, suicide was the second leading cause of death for veterans under the age of 45. Both of these numbers are real…and are current…and will tell us a story if we are willing to listen and dig for the truth.
When we don’t follow real data, we don’t know the real challenges—and when we don’t know the real challenge, there’s no way to create a real solution. We can’t follow the “why” and drill down to find answers, all because we’re sitting on the same answer we had 10 years ago. And there are too many working too hard to find real answers.
So rally cries be damned—there’s still work to do. Because whether the actual number is 44 or 22 or 17 or two—it’s always going to be too many.
How to help:
If you or someone you know may be contemplating suicide, don’t leave them alone. Call the Suicide Crisis Line at 988 for help. For veteran-specific response, then press 1.
Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors : TAPS provides compassionate care and resources to all those grieving the loss of a military loved one through their national peer support network and connection to grief resources. Call 24/7 (800) 959-8277.
See the Reports: Visit the VA’s page on Suicide Prevention for current and past reports.