Service Members and Vets Belonging to Racial Minority Groups Face Disproportionately High Suicide Rates

by Braxton Taylor

The military and veterans’ communities have spent years trying to combat suicide rates much higher than the national average. But within those communities, Americans belonging to racial minority groups are experiencing even higher rates, according to analysis by Military.com.

Based on data from the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Defense Department, the suicide risk among service members and veterans of Asian American and Pacific Islander descent (AAPI) was 350% higher than the national average, and the per capita rate for Black and Hispanic vets and troops was twice the national average in 2021, the last year for which data was available from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, VA and DoD.

Those rates are higher than those for white service members and veterans, though that group also sees elevated risk of suicide compared to the civilian population.

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“There are sociopolitical factors in the environment that are creating minority or racialized stress along with the historical underpinnings of racism and racial discrimination in the military,” said Patricia B. Glenn, senior clinical director at the nonprofit organization Stop Soldier Suicide. Glenn added that research is just beginning to understand why there is the disparity in suicide risk.

More than 30,177 service members and veterans who served during the War on Terror alone have died due to suicide, four times the number of troops lost in combat during that period. The military’s mental health crisis is complex and involves factors including military sexual trauma, poor leadership, combat exposure, quality-of-life issues and many others. However, specific risks for certain demographics of service members have been understudied. A 2021 report from Rand Corp. on the mental health of minority service members found that those in several groups were more likely to attempt suicide than their white peers.

Although 2021 is the most recent year for which complete data on military and veteran suicide rates has been released, it is part of a larger trend that began in 2017. Based on the data analyzed by Military.com, per capita suicide rates among minority service members since that year have increased 57% on average, versus 6% in the same time period for their white counterparts. These increased rates of suicide are also higher than trends in the national population.

It is unclear what exactly is driving these disparities between military and non-military populations for minority service members, though previous research has highlighted potential factors, including racial discrimination such as Uniform Code of Military Justice punishment, racial health inequities, and cultural factors.

After multiple deployments to Operation Iraqi Freedom where he suffered from traumatic brain injuries and development of post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms, retired U.S. Army Maj. Art Murguia, a former artillery officer who identifies as Chicano (Mexican American), was one of the first commanders of the DoD’s Warrior Transition Units. These units were created in the late 2000s after the high number of wounds, both physical and mental, suffered by service members in the Global War on Terror.

“The main goal of these units was to transition people out of the military as fast as possible,” said Murguia. “My previous unit leadership told me to ‘suck it up’ and to just drive on.”

And for those who were open about their struggles, the judgment would be swift.

“If you had mental wounds, you were looked at like you were the scum of the Earth,” he said. “Sometimes, the stigma came from my own doctors: One wrote that I looked guilty as if I were faking my condition. It was entirely unprofessional, and some of it felt racial.”

After his time in uniform, Murguia worked as a senior adviser in the Department of Defense’s Health Affairs office, assisting the assistant secretary of defense in developing policy pertaining to the military’s Wounded Warrior Program.

“For years, the DoD didn’t pay attention to the issue of suicide among minority service members,” Murguia said. “That combined with the already high levels of stigma about seeking treatment for men in the Latino/Hispanic community. You don’t want to appear weak; you don’t want to appease others; you have to be tough and macho. Most people don’t know where to find help or feel like they have to gut through it. If someone asks you if you’re OK in the military, the immediate response for most of us is, ‘Yeah, I’m fine.'”

In a 2017 Workplace and Equal Opportunity Survey conducted by the DoD, nearly 1 in 3 of Black service members reported experiencing racial discrimination, harassment or both during a 12-month period. About 1 in 5 of AAPI and Hispanic service members reported the same; all of this was at a higher rate than their white counterparts.

A report from the DoD reviewing the results showed the minority service members experiencing harassment and discrimination reported lower levels of readiness, such as loss of trust in their leaders, lower morale, and negative perceptions of their ability to perform their wartime mission. The effect that this treatment has on the mental well-being of minority service members is unclear, however, although research published last year found that soldiers who were bullied or hazed were more likely to develop mental health issues than those who were not.

Several high-profile cases of racist behavior that has contributed to suicide have also gained attention, such as the 2011 death of U.S. Army Pvt. Danny Chen. He was 19-years-old when he died by suicide while serving in Afghanistan.

The Chinese American soldier was racially harassed, teased, bullied and mercilessly beaten by his leadership and fellow soldiers, according to an investigation conducted by the Army in 2011 after his death. The Army would eventually charge eight of his fellow soldiers, including his platoon leader, for various offenses, convicting four of them.

The DoD and VA have only just recently begun studying the role that demographic factors have in influencing behavioral health outcomes among troops, although data indicating the disparities between suicide rates has existed for years. Since the publication of Rand’s 2021 report, the DoD has published one paper focusing on the demographic characteristics of behavioral health concerns among service members. For this story, Military.Com reached out to the Defense Centers for Public Health-Aberdeen, which is leading the DoD effort to research potential behavioral health disparities among those who belong to minority groups in the military, for comment but did not receive a response by publication.

In September, researchers at the VA published a study that looked at 20 years of data on suicide in the Asian American and Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander (AANHPI) community finding that veterans suicide rates in that group have steady increased while the civilian rate has remained largely flat. The disparity was high especially among AANHPI veterans aged 18-34.

Dr. Lindsey Monteith, the lead author of the study, said via email that no single factor seemed to be driving the increases though several problems were contributing, including “experiences of discrimination, harmful societal stereotypes (e.g., the ‘model minority myth’), and stigma.”

Monteith and her team are now further investigating potential contributing factors as part of a project funded by the VA Office of Mental Health and Suicide Prevention.

Glenn said that research began to pick up after the protests surrounding the murder of George Floyd, but that “with DEI [diversity, equity and inclusion] becoming a political battleground, it’s very hard to know where those efforts currently stand.”

“A start would be more equitable hiring practices to ensure there are more BIPOC [Black, indigenous and other people of color] mental health providers,” said Glenn. “And treatments tailored toward those communities, along with a focus on identifying potential barriers to treatment.”

— Daniel Johnson is Ph.D. student at the Hussman School of Journalism and Media at UNC-Chapel Hill. He served for nine years in the U.S. Army as an officer and has written for outlets including The New York Times, Washington Post and Chicago Tribune.

Related: Veteran Suicides Ticked Upward in 2021 Following 2 Years of Decline, Latest VA Statistics Show

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