New VA study finds 20 veterans die by suicide each day

Whether gone for two months or two years, returning from combat is grueling.TRICARE offers behavioral health benefits for eligible beneficiaries who need it. A free streaming video or as a 2-DVD set on www.triwest.com offers advice from behavioral health experts who are also combat veterans and military families that have coped with effects of PTSD. (Courtesy photo illustration)

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The most comprehensive study yet made of veteran suicide concludes that on average 20 veterans a day are taking their own lives.

The average daily tally is two less than the VA previously estimated, but is based on a more thorough review of Defense Department records, records from each state and data from the Centers for Disease Control, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs.

“One veteran suicide is one too many, and this collaborative effort provides both updated and comprehensive data that allows us to make better-informed decisions on how to prevent this national tragedy,” said Dr. David J. Shulkin, VA Under Secretary for Health. “We as a nation must focus on bringing the number of veteran suicides to zero.”

The VA said in a statement that the report will be released at the end of July.

One finding unchanged from the VA’s 2012 report — which was based on 2010 figures — is that veterans age 50 and older are more likely than their younger counterparts to commit suicide. But even here the latest findings adjust that number downward, from just over 69 percent in the VA’s 2012 report to 65 percent.

The study found that veterans accounted for 18 percent of all deaths from suicide among U.S. adults in 2014 — a decrease from 22 percent in 2010.

Veteran suicides increased at a rate higher than adult civilians between 2001 and 2014. The civilian rate grew by 23 percent while veteran suicides increased 32 percent over the same period. “After controlling for age and gender, this makes the risk of suicide 21 percent greater for veterans,” the VA said.

The study also found that the suicide rates among veterans — male and female — who use VA services increased, though not at the rate among veterans who did not use the services.

Overall, the suicide rate since 2001 among all veterans using VA services grew by 8.8 percent versus 38.6 percent for those who did not. For male veterans, the rate increased 11 percent and 35 percent, respectively. For female vets, the rates increased 4.6 percent and 98 percent, according to the study.

In its last study, the VA noted that its figures probably were underestimated, in part because it relied on state records that were not always complete or accurate. Another shortcoming with the earlier report is that it used information from only 21 states.

“The ability of death certificates to fully capture female Veterans was particularly low; only 67 percent of true female Veterans were identified,” the report stated. “Younger or unmarried Veterans and those with lower levels of education were also more likely to be missed on the death certificate.”

The increasing rate of female suicides prompted Congress to pass the Female Veterans Suicide Act, which President Obama signed into law last month.

The VA’s announcement does not offer an explanation why older veterans are more likely to commit suicide, though Dr. Tom Berger, a Navy corpsman in Vietnam and now executive director of the Veterans Health Council at Vietnam Veterans of America, previously told Military.com that sometimes veterans reach an age where they’re not as active with work or other commitments that may have been coping mechanisms for post-traumatic stress disorder or other mental health issues.

The VA said in its announcement on Thursday that over 1.6 million veterans received mental health treatment from the department, including at more than 150 medical centers, 820 community-based outpatient clinics and 300 Vet Centers. Veterans also enter VA health care through theVeterans Crisis Line, VA staff on college and university campuses, or other outreach points.

The VA anticipates having 1,000 locations where veterans can receive mental health care by the end of 2016.

Efforts to address the high suicide rates among veterans also include predictive modeling — using clinical signs of suicide — to determine which vets may be at highest risk, the VA said in its statement. This system will enable providers to intervene early in the cases of most at-risk veterans.

The VA is also expanding telemental health care by establishing four new regional telemental health hubs across the VA health care system, hiring more than 60 new crisis intervention responders for the Veterans Crisis Line, and building new partnerships between VA programs and community-based programs.

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