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Suicide

The Heart of Veteran Suicide Isn't About Combat

Why "thwarted belongingness" can be so toxic for male veterans.

Key points

  • Joiner’s interpersonal theory of suicide postulates that suicide occurs because of thwarted belongingness and perceived burdensomeness.
  • Male veterans in their late 60s and 70s experience disproportionately high levels of emotional disconnection and thwarted belonginess.
  • These suicide risk factors begin in early childhood socialization around trust, vulnerability, and emotional closeness.
  • The antidote to thwarted belongingness is courageous vulnerability and new, validating relationships.
RODNAE/Pexels
Source: RODNAE/Pexels

When I was 20 years old, I stared into the eyes of an Al-Qaeda terrorist as he sprayed automatic gunfire on my position at the U.S. Consulate in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia on December 6, 2004.

The terrorists murdered five of our State Department colleagues before the siege came to an end that day.

For nearly two decades, I held onto deep guilt for not having saved everyone that day and an underlying, insidious distrust of other humans. Receiving great care from the VA and eventually becoming a psychologist myself renewed my faith and trust in people.

Many combat veterans struggle with this familiar symptom of post-traumatic stress. Distrust rips at the fabric of what makes our armed forces formidable: our bond with each other. It becomes especially problematic when we come home and take the uniform off.

It's then that we find ourselves without bonds and without a mission that our risk for suicide increases significantly.

The heart of suicide isn't experiencing combat itself. It is both the disconnection that follows and the core beliefs we have around vulnerability that predate our service.

Thomas Joiner’s interpersonal theory of suicide is a core component of the military psychology community's approach to suicide prevention. The theory postulates that suicide occurs because of thwarted belongingness and perceived burdensomeness.

Thwarted belonginess is maintained by a core belief: "I am alone," which can lead to hopelessness about the possibility of real human connection.

Male veterans in their late 60s and 70s experience disproportionately high levels of emotional disconnection and thwarted belongingness. They have the highest suicide rates and are often unmarried, living alone, with few ties to their communities (Anestis et al, 2015).

These suicide risk factors don't start in the military. For many men, they begin in early childhood socialization around trust, vulnerability, and emotional closeness.

The antidote to thwarted belongingness is courageous vulnerability and new, validating relationships.

Our life trajectories are not pre-determined. While post-traumatic stress can often be chronic, a sacrifice of our peace of mind for the common good, we combat veterans must be courageous enough to people our lives again. It takes courage and a leap of faith to begin introducing yourself to new people, or reintroducing yourself to others. In doing so we may find that a fierce, healthy love between friends and neighbors becomes a practical protective factor and path toward reducing the veteran suicide rate. That, and making sure that when a veteran is ready to reach out, they can reach out to their local Vet Center. There are over 300 Vet Centers nationwide. They are part of the VA and provide free, lifetime services to eligible veterans and their families. The program was created by Vietnam veterans and is a trusted resource for many. You can meet providers who are veterans themselves, professionals who have done the work and can help you cross that bridge too.

References

Anestis, M. D., Khazem, L. R., Mohn, R. S., & Green, B. A. (2015). Testing the main hypotheses of the interpersonal–psychological theory of suicidal behavior in a large diverse sample of United States military personnel. Comprehensive Psychiatry, 60, 78-85.

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