September is Suicide Prevention Month. This is a delicate, but critical issue many of our community members struggle with personally, while others have lost friends and family. At Bunker Labs, we’re committed to helping Veterans and military spouses chase their entrepreneurial dreams. So, to that end, we want to take some time to explore this serious issue, how it impacts our community, and how you can better manage your mental health and risk factors to protect our community.
If you’re in crisis right now, feel trapped, low, or find yourself fantasizing about suicide or your own death, dial 988 immediately, then press “1” to access the Veteran Crisis Line. You can also chat online, or text 838255 if that makes it easier to communicate what you’re feeling. Fellow Veterans are standing by, eager to hear what you’re going through, even if you think it’s not that a big deal. They can also direct you to supplemental resources to improve your mental health and ensure your friends, family, and loved ones can enjoy your company for years to come.
We’re All at Elevated Risk
The unfortunate reality is that our community possesses several risk factors. The numbers don’t lie. As groups, Veterans, military spouses, and entrepreneurs are more likely have low, depressive episodes, feelings of guilt, and feelings of being trapped in an unhappy situation. We’re more likely to feel isolated and cut off from our peers, friends, and family, we experience enormous pressure to succeed, can have very public failures, and suffer from a range of mental illnesses at higher rates than the general population.
What’s worse, all of these factors can combine to exacerbate other mental health challenges, and create a “perfect storm” situation. Mental health challenges aren’t something to ignore and power through. Your mental wellness can’t be your lowest priority. If you ran a delivery company, you wouldn’t field a vehicle with a flat tire, even if you could power through on it and make the next delivery. You change the tire to protect the asset, and address the underlying problem.
Suicide Rate Reporting
Suicide rates are reported as a number of suicides per 100,000 individuals. The statistics and data for this article (except where otherwise indicated) were pulled directly from the Department of Defense Annual Suicide Report for Calendar Year 2020, and the National Veteran Suicide Prevention Annual Report 2021, which represent the most up-to-date information publicly available.
Veteran Suicide Rates
It’s no secret that Veteran suicide rates are higher than the rest of the population. Our military experiences can come home with us in the form of survivor’s guilt, depression, and feelings of isolation. When people serve in the military, the quickness and degree to which they bond with members of our unit is intense, and many liken their shipmates and battle buddies to family. When they return from our service, the more cautious pace of civilian socialization, rife with boundaries, can feel isolating.
Veterans are more likely to engage in substance abuse than their civilian peers, particularly alcohol. Veterans are also more likely to own a firearm than most Americans. Firearms account for roughly half of all suicides, but 70% of all Veteran-suicides. These are each dangerous risk multipliers on their own, and they can combine to transform a low moment into one with lethal consequences.
The Veteran suicide rate for 2019 is 26.9 per 100,000, compared to the US non-Veteran rate of 16.8. Veteran men commit suicide at double the rate of Veteran women, with a rate of 38.8 vs 15.4 per 100,000 Veterans.
Graph from National Veteran Suicide Prevention Annual Report 2021.
Military Spouse Suicide Rates
The suicide rate among military spouses is also significantly higher than the baseline American suicide rates. It doesn’t get spoken about nearly as much as Veteran suicide, but it should come as no surprise. Military spouses often move to new places frequently, separated from their support systems of friends and family. This can lead to feelings of depression, isolation, and being trapped. When a military spouse’s significant other deploys, these feelings can escalate.
While some bases might have great military spouse support programs, others might not. Some spouses might live in off-base housing, which can isolate them from the local military spouse community. Others might feel excluded from those groups for any number of reasons, ranging from the nature and location of the activities, to feeling singled out because of age, race, religion, gender, culture, or interests.
For the past 20 years, the suicide rate for American women has been between 4-6 suicides per 100,000 women. The military spouse suicide rate for women (women make up 92% of military spouses) in 2018 was 9.2 (though it did fall to 8.1and 6.8 in the following years). The military spouse suicide rate for men was 51.7 for 2019, more than double the baseline suicide rate that same year for American men of 22 per 100,000.
Entrepreneur Risk Factors
Everyone is familiar with the phrase “it’s lonely at the top”. Being the boss puts a professional barrier between entrepreneurs and their coworkers that can make it very hard for them to air feelings or fears in the workplace. In fact, most entrepreneurs try to project an air of confident competence and reassure clients, coworkers, and investors alike that they’re a steady hand guiding the company, no matter how they feel. While that might be great for investor confidence and employee retention at work, living behind a façade is not infinitely sustainable, or healthy. There must be non-destructive relief valves, places where that work persona can be set aside and you can be your entire self.
Entrepreneurs face chronic amounts of high-stress and pressure, especially if operating with little or no safety net. The discussion about entrepreneur suicide is only just beginning over the last few years, so much so that there haven’t been reliable studies yet. So, while there aren’t firm numbers, entrepreneurs are thought to be at significantly elevated risk for suicide. This is because they do experience mental health challenges like clinical depression, bipolar disorder, and substance abuse at higher rates than most of the population.
Entrepreneurship entails risk, and we’re all betting our futures on ourselves by choosing an entrepreneurial life. This risk comes with extreme highs and lows, failure is part of entrepreneurship, and learning how to handle the lows isn’t always intuitive. Entrepreneurs also feel like a lot of people depend on them, be it family, clients, employees, or investors. While this can be rewarding when things are going well, it can feel humiliating, or like a trap when you fail or take a few losses. Those extreme lows, combined with burnout or added stress can become a lethal combination if left unchecked.
Protecting your Mental Health & Wellness
Entrepreneurs manage risk. That’s a fundamental pillar of what we do. However, you can’t manage your suicide risk by ignoring it until it’s an emergency. Your mental health needs to be a priority year-round. You’ve heard that before, but what does prioritizing your mental health actually mean? What does it look like in practice?
Steps To Manage Mental Health
Attacking mental health can feel vague or daunting. It doesn’t have to be.
Therapy: There is no substitute for a trained professional. Unfortunately, affordable therapy can be difficult to access. However, if you have the means, therapy shouldn’t wait until there’s a problem. It can function as a preventative measure, and help you work through lurking, unprocessed traumas to add greater resilience to your mental health, and make it easier to meaningfully connect with others.
Make Time For Yourself: Block off the time to do the things that keep you happy. That means taking vacation days. It means blocking off a few hours each week to engage with loved ones, or do something outside work that brings you joy. Diversifying your self-worth and value as a person beyond your company can make you much more resilient through the rough patches.
Connect: Connect with people. Having close relationships with individuals, where you feel comfortable venting frustrations and sharing your struggles can help alleviate feelings of isolation. These need to be people you feel comfortable letting your “boss” persona down around. Family, close friends, and people you meet in Bunker Labs cohorts or other Veteran and military spouse groups can all help you feel less alone, and make it a lot easier for you to ask for help when you need it.
Evaluate: Periodically evaluating your own mental health and your risk factors is critical. Recognizing that you’re struggling can give you a window to reach out for mental health resources before you’re in crisis, when they can do the most good. You might look to any number of mental health apps, start a journal, or just set aside a short walk once a week specifically to consider and evaluate the state of your mental health.
It’s also important to re-evaluate the risks you expose yourself to. Maybe one aspect of work or home life is causing you undue stress, and you can outsource or delegate the task. Maybe you decide it’s time to secure any firearms before you go out drinking, or store your firearms in secure lockers at your local shooting range instead of in your home. Maybe it’s time to change how you engage with alcohol. The Veteran Crisis Line website has a great self-assessment tool if you’re not sure where to start.
How to Help Someone Else
Do you have the feeling a coworker, friend, or loved one is having a hard time and might be at risk of suicide? The National Institute of Mental Health has compiled an easy-to-digest list of warning signs, and concrete steps you can take to help.
Use the self-assessment tool from the Veteran Crisis Line. Learn about the current state of your mental health. Talk to your loved ones about your risk, and your needs to help manage it. That might be anything from scheduling time to talk, to starting therapy or counseling, to hiding the key to the gun safe during especially challenging weeks. Talk it out and find a plan that works to manage your risk. Once you’ve done that work, talk about the experience with your peers, normalize conversations about suicide risk to help reduce any stigma, and help direct them to the resources that helped you.