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Military personnel and veterans, suicide and grief

When a member of the Defence Force or a veteran ends their life, the impact on those around them can be devastating. The close bonds and focus on mutual protection among service personnel can mean that the loss of a colleague who has taken their own life can be particularly devastating, destabilising and difficult to understand.

For military personnel and veterans, the grief following the loss of a colleague can be hidden or unrecognised. This can happen particularly if the death involves a circumstance that some people may view as associated with a stigma (such as suicide), or if there are many losses within a short period and there is not enough time to mourn. Studies have shown that many veterans can still have very strong grief reactions about colleagues who have died over thirty years ago.

Being unable to recognise emotions can also lead to an inability to grieve appropriately. Sometimes, serving personnel are taught to disconnect from their emotions to be able to operate in unstable situations, whether that be war or warlike conditions, peacekeeping operations, or disaster relief. Consequently, many military personnel or veterans may have difficulty recognising their grief, which makes it difficult to learn to cope with it, and so it can remain as ongoing stress.

About suicide in military personnel and veterans

A range of complex factors contribute to the rates of suicide, self-harm, and suicidal thinking experienced by current and former defence personnel. If military personnel or veterans have faced traumatic events that threaten their life and safety (either during service or before it), they may experience symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) which, in turn, can increase their suicide risk.

Although the rate of suicide is lower among serving members of the Defence Force than in the general population, studies suggest that the rate of suicidal thinking among serving military personnel may be more than double that observed among civilians. More specifically, during transition out of the military, research has demonstrated that one in every five military personnel experiences suicidal thoughts, feelings, or attempts, and after service the rate of completed suicide is double that of civilians. Suicide risk is higher still among young men, those discharged involuntarily, and those who left the Defence Force after less than one year of service.

Factors contributing to suicide in military personnel

  • Whilst deployment can contribute to the development of a strong identity within the military, back-to-back or frequent deployments can undermine that identity, mostly by way of cumulative loss and trauma with limited time to process associated grief. Conversely, those who join the military and do not deploy may not have the opportunity to consolidate their military identity, which in turn can impact their capacity to cope with some stressors
  • Multiple losses, including those that occur during and after deployments and upon each posting
  • Barriers to seeking support for mental health concerns, which include issues around military culture, and the perception that seeking treatment could negatively impact the progression of their career and deployment opportunities
  • A variety of different mental health challenges, including depression, anxiety, PTSD and issues with drugs/alcohol
  • Marital or relationship breakdown

Factors contributing to suicide in military veterans

Difficulties faced by serving personnel in the military are compounded by stressors experienced during transition back into civilian life:

  • isolation from previous friendship networks, employment and familiar supports can also put strain upon intimate and family relationships, and contribute to feelings of diminished self-worth
  • for many, the absence of military structure, routines and social connections can contribute to a sense of alienation, and loss of the identity and purpose they experienced while serving
  • military veterans seeking support and compensation have reported that the process of progressing a claim can exacerbate the stress experienced as they transition out of active service. In many instances, veterans feel they are ‘in limbo’ and face disincentives to work until compensation is finalised, a situation that can add to their mental distress and uncertainty, while placing their families under considerable financial pressure
  • rates of chronic mental health conditions among veterans are higher than in civilian populations and PTSD in veterans can lead to higher rates of alcohol and drug misuse, making suicide attempts more likely when judgement is impaired
  • rates of chronic physical conditions among veterans are higher than in civilian populations which can also cause significant distress, mostly related to diminished hope, loss of identity and self-esteem, and financial losses

Military personnel and veterans bereaved by suicide

For military personnel and veterans, the death of someone close who has taken their own life can trigger common grief reactions including sadness, anger, guilt and regret. It may also raise memories and emotions associated with past experiences, including feelings of guilt or pain connected to deaths not fully grieved in the course of active duty.

Military personnel and veterans may also be at risk of grief following a suicide that worsens over time. This is called complicated grief and it may occur for military personnel who have a history of depression or post-traumatic stress disorder, who have faced many losses in succession or who have faced significant losses during service or prior to it, without openly mourning or accessing support.

Coping after the suicide of a current or ex-service member of the Defence Forces

  • Ask for help. If people close to you are unable to help, reach out to other people who may have experienced similar grief, such as other veterans or veterans’ families who may have also lost someone who took their own life. You don’t have to grieve alone
  • Your GP, mental health professionals, counsellors, suicide loss support groups and networks, faith communities and the military community can provide support