By Leo Shane III, AIR FORCE TIMES
Researchers this year changed a key metric in how they track veterans suicides in an effort to better explain the scope of the problem, but mental health advocates say it still doesn’t tell the full story.
In the last four years, the official government estimate on the number of veterans who die by suicide has gone from 22 a day to 17 a day in the latest Veterans Affairs report. But the rate of suicides among veterans didn’t decrease over that span. Instead, the way the figures are sorted and presented did.
Instead, outside experts note that by many markers the problem has grown even worse. The total number of suicides among veterans has increased four of the last five years on record.
From 2007 to 2017, the rate of suicide among veterans jumped almost 50 percent.
Veterans are 1.5 times more likely to die by suicide than Americans who never served in the military. For female veterans, the risk factor is 2.2 times more likely.
“Our takeaway from all this is that what we are doing is not working,” said Chanin Nuntavong, national director of veterans affairs and rehabilitation for the American Legion.
“Everyone has been focused on this, but we’re not seeing results.”
Reducing veterans suicide has been the top clinical priority of VA officials for the last few years, and a major focus of executive branch and congressional leaders for at least a decade. In March, a special interagency task force established by the White House is scheduled to unveil its latest plans for that effort.
Yet the impact of that work so far has been disheartening to many advocates who had hoped to see reductions in the suicide numbers by now. Despite some positive steps and mitigating factors, real progress on the issue is still out of reach.
“In my eyes, this report tells us it’s time to do something different,” Nuntavong said. “We lost more than 60,000 veterans to suicide over 10 years. That’s ridiculous.”
A national problem About 6,100 veterans died by suicide in 2017, the latest year for which data is available.
That number stayed roughly steady over the previous decade, even as the total number of veterans in America has dropped by about 15 percent.
Over the same span, the number of suicides among all Americans rose by nearly 10,000 individuals annually, an increase of nearly 30 percent.
Heather O’Beirne Kelly, director of military and veterans health policy at the American Psychological Association, said in comparison to national suicide prevention initiatives, VA’s efforts have shown some positive results.
“VA is really thinking about this and using the most up-to-date research,” she said. “But it’s a very complicated problem, it’s a multi-faceted problem. It’s tragic we can’t all figure this out more quickly.”
The revamping of how the VA suicide data is presented was part of that approach of showing the problem is broader than just the veterans’ community.
As recently as four years ago, VA leaders were still referencing the “22 a day” statistic in regards to veterans suicide based on partial state death records data and internal estimates. After a research push in 2016, department leaders shifted that figure to “20 veterans a day” based on more reliable information, without establishing any reduction in deaths.
This year’s report now cites the veterans suicide figure as “17 a day,” removing active-duty, National Guardsmen and reservists from the larger number. State data had grouped all military together in the past. Again, VA officials are quick to point out that the new metric does not represent a decrease in veteran deaths, just a different way of presenting the information.
At a Capitol Hill briefing last month, Barbara Van Dahlen — executive director of the task force — said other topics of focus will be better coordinating federal and state resources, increased outreach of available VA services, and discussion on lethal-means safety, to include education on firearms and veterans suicide.
Veterans experiencing a mental health emergency can contact the Veteran Crisis Line at 1-800-273-8255 and select option 1 for a VA staffer. Veterans, troops or their family members can also text 838255 or visit VeteransCrisisLine.net for assistance.