Veterans’ Suicide Rates Going Up Despite Efforts to Address Mental Health Issues

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By Sandra Basu

WASHINGTON – Despite efforts to stem the tide of suicides among current and former military personnel, new reports suggest the number of veterans and active-duty servicemembers taking their own lives is going up, not down, as officials had hoped.

A new VA suicide study, which used different data from past reports, estimates an average 22 veterans die by suicide every day in the United States, compared with the previous estimate of an average of 18 veterans killing themselves per day.

Secretary of the Army John McHugh signs a directive at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, WA, directing the development of a “Ready and Resilient” campaign. — Photo courtesy of the U.S. Army

“The mental health and well-being of our courageous men and women who have served the nation is the highest priority for VA, and even one suicide is one too many,” VA Secretary Eric K. Shinseki said in response to the findings. “We have more work to do, and we will use this data to continue to strengthen our suicide prevention efforts and ensure all veterans receive the care they have earned and deserve.”

The report, touted by the VA as the most comprehensive study of veteran suicide rates ever undertaken by the department, come as both DoD and VA continue to grapple with how to address suicide. The same day the VA released its report, the Army reported 325 total suicides among active and reserve troops in 2012, an increase over the 283 suicides it reported in 2011.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), chairman of the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, said that his committee will be “working aggressively” with VA to address this crisis.

“The suicide level for veterans is unacceptable,” he said in a written statement. “What we’re seeing is an extraordinary tragedy which speaks to the horror of war and the need for us to do a much better job assisting our soldiers and their families after they return home.”

Source of Statistics

The latest VA statistics were derived from data obtained from the State Mortality Project, Suicide Behavior Reports for fiscal years 2009 — 2012, and the Veterans Crisis Line.

Before now, the primary source for suicide information was limited to veterans who actually receive care in VA. VA determined, however, that additional data on veterans with and without history of VHA service use was needed, and Shinseki in 2010 asked state governors to help collect veteran suicide data.

Study authors noted that the report contains information from the first 21 states to contribute data and does not include some states, such as California and Texas, with larger veteran populations.

“Estimates that the number of suicides among veterans each day has increased, are based on information provided by 21 states and may not be generalizable to the larger population,” the study cautioned.

In general, the report found that a majority of veteran suicides are among those over 50 years old. Males accounted for more than 97% of all suicides among those identified as veterans, compared with about 74% among civilian suicide victims, it noted.

Overall, the report stated that the number of veterans who die from suicide each day has remained relatively stable over the past 12 years, ranging from 18 to 22 per day.

 Other findings of the report cited:

• In 2012, nonfatal suicide events were reported for almost 11,000 VHA users. Since some veterans using VHA experience multiple reported attempts, this corresponds to nearly 15,000 suicide events reported in FY 2012 compared with more than 16,000 in FY 2011, according to the report.

• The majority of veterans who have a suicide event were last seen in an outpatient setting, with a high prevalence of nonfatal suicide events resulting from overdose or other intentional poisoning.

• The percentage of callers to the Veterans Crisis Line who say they are currently thinking of suicide has decreased.

• The percentage of all calls to the crisis line resulting in a rescue has decreased. This indicates that the calls are “less emergent, and callers are using the crisis line earlier,” according to study authors.

Addressing Suicide

Responding to the report, VHA said it has created a task force that will provide recommendations for improving mental healthcare. In addition, it has determined that female veterans and Vietnam-era veterans need additional interventions and will develop additional training programs for providers working with these groups of patients.

The VA also cited steps it has recently taken to address suicide. In accordance with an August 2013 executive order from President Barack Obama, VA said it has completed hiring and training of additional staff to increase the capacity of the Veterans Crisis Line by 50%.

The agency also announced that it was making progress in its goal of hiring 1,600 new mental health clinical providers and 300 administrative support staff. As of Jan. 29, the agency said it had hired 1,058 mental health clinical providers and 223 administrative support staff toward that goal.

In response to the report, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America founder and CEO Paul Rieckhoff said more “creative solutions” are needed.

“Our leaders in Washington need to accelerate efforts to shrink wait times for mental healthcare and find more creative solutions like the Veteran Crisis Line. The country should be outraged that we are allowing this tragedy to continue,” he said in a written statement.

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