The alarming suicide rate of older veterans

Alaska Older Veterans Report

It’s an alarming and disturbing fact but older veterans have a higher suicide rate than the general public, including returning Iraq and Afghanistan veterans. In fact, veterans over 50 years of age have a 70 percent higher suicide rate than the non-veteran general population.

According to Tom Berger, executive director of the Vietnam Veterans of America national health council and a Vietnam Navy veteran, “You know, ‘We’re just old guys, and we’re going to die, so why pay much attention to them?’ That’s kind of the feeling that some of our members have.”

Sen. John Walsh, D-Mont., the first Iraq War combat veteran to serve in the Senate, introduced one of the omnibus bills that contained an extension from five to 15 years in which a veteran could qualify for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) benefits from the VA.

But only veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars would be eligible for the 15-year extension deadline. Although the recent shooting at Fort Hood has reignited the national debate over the surge of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans’ suicides, as it should, older veterans have been largely overlooked in the conversation. A call to our Congressional delegation, two of which are running for re-election this fall, is in order to extend this proposal to all veterans.

Thank goodness the VA is recognizing PTSD as an illness that is just as real as a visible injury to one’s body and the PTSD onset can be delayed for decades. Sometimes the body heals much faster than the mind. This disorder is often overlooked by the family and friends of a World War II, Korean or Vietnam War era veteran because the illness is masked by anti-social behavior, alcohol and illegal and prescription drug abuse. These symptoms are often recognized and treated while the underlying cause is not.

The good news is many resources are at your disposal if you just ask.

The VA’s updated suicide information earlier this year showed a decrease in the suicide rate for middle-aged male veterans who use VA health care, compared with an increase for the same age group of veterans who don’t. This is not a small detail.

Robert Bossarte, who coauthored the VA study, said that despite initial worries that older veterans wouldn’t use the Veterans Crisis Line, the opposite has proven true. A majority of the calls came from the over-fifty year old age group of veterans.

A booklet, “The Guide to VA Mental Health Services for Veterans and Families,” is available from the VA. Some of the services outlined in this guide are the improved focus on recovery, a coordinated mental health treatment program, a coordinator for the mental health treatment in primary care, around-the-clock services and family and couple services. This guide and other veterans’ services are available for download and pdf printing at the website and toll free telephone numbers for other services are in the phone book under Veteran Administration.

The Veterans Crisis Line connects Veterans in crisis and their families and friends with qualified, caring VA responders through a confidential toll-free hotline, online chat, or text. To speak with a responder by phone, call 1-800-273-8255 and Press 1. To chat online go to To text with a responder, send a text message to 838255. These confidential support options are available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year.

Veterans who are homeless can get help finding mental health care at a veterans drop-in center, or by contacting the National Call Center for Homeless Veterans at 1-877-424-3838, or by visiting the VA’s Homeless Veterans Website at

VA Community Living Centers (CLCs) for Veterans are available in some areas for Veterans needing temporary assisted care until they can return home or find placement in a nursing home.

For more information, visit or call:

• VA Benefits Information 1-800-827-1000

• VA Medical Information 1-800-353-7574

Many valuable mental health services are available to all veterans but the veteran, their family or a very good friend must initiate the process.

And on a personal note, I would like to thank all the medical staff at JBER’s ER and MSU for the wonderful care I received this past month. Thanks again.

Here’s to your good mental health. Until next month, Mike is RTB, out.

Mike Dryden is a retired Army Major and current board member of Older Persons Action Group, Inc.

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