- - Monday, October 31, 2016

“Thank you for your service” has become the conventional way to greet a uniformed soldier you might meet in an elevator or in line at Starbucks. So when the public learned that the government was demanding refunds of the enlistment bonuses soldiers received for signing up to serve in the Iraq war, the injustice was simply too much to bear. Public outcry reached the ears of members of Congress, and they responded.

Yes, we thank soldiers for their service — and then neglect them when they become vets. Veterans are a very vulnerable population. We have long known that they suffer high rates of unemployment. Vets are found in great numbers among the homeless, those with alcohol and substance abuse disorders and other psychological, social and physical problems.

In some ways, becoming a veteran is more dangerous than being on active military duty. The risk of death by suicide is a dramatic example of the dangers that veterans face. In the first year after leaving the service, the odds of a veteran committing suicide is nearly triple the odds of current military members.

Deployment plays a role, as well. In the first quarter following deployment, military service members had a 50 percent higher risk of suicide than those who didn’t experience deployment.

These findings are among the results of a study published in The Lancet Psychiatry, conducted by Yu-Chu Shen, and associates. Shen is a researcher at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California. They analyzed data collected on almost 4 million current and former service members from 2001 to 2011. Overall, there were nearly 5,000 suicides in the study population.

What can we do about it the high suicide rate among veterans?

Since we know the transition from military life, with its structure and fellowship, to the unstructured, highly individualistic and often indifferent general society is risky and difficult, we need more programs that support and connect vets during these years. Easier and faster access to treatment for mental disorders is also urgently needed.

The study’s lead author Shen suggests, “Family members and community can be proactive to reach out to veterans if they recently experienced stressful events – not just limited to the stressful events we can capture in the data such as divorce or separation from the military.”

That’s how we can thank them for their service.

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