One out of every four veterans who commit suicide live in a western US state. Take a map of the US, start with Montana at the top then draw a line straight down through Wyoming, Colorado and New Mexico – everything to the left of that line, including Alaska and Hawaii, represents 10,749 of the total 41,425 veteran suicides in 2014.
This sobering information comes from the most wide-ranging study of veteran suicide in our nation’s history. The Department of Veterans Affairs looked at over 55 million healthcare records from 1979 to 2014, with all 50 states and territories included for the first time. Previous suicide reports from the VA have been based on data obtained from only 20 states and 3 million veteran records. This report is also the first complete assessment of differences in rates of suicide with and without the use of VHA services as well as comparisons between veterans and other Americans.
If there can be any good news in this report, it can be found in the small change to the number of veterans who take their own lives each day. In 2010 that number was 22, but by 2014 that number shrank slightly to 20. While the number came down, veterans are still 22% more likely to commit suicide than our civilian counterparts.
In 2014, veterans made up 8.5% of the US population, yet our fellow soldiers, sailors and airmen account for 18% of suicide deaths in the States. The rate of suicide with middle-aged and older veterans stays very high. 65% of veterans who took their own lives were over the age of 50.
“These findings are deeply concerning, which is why I made suicide prevention my top clinical priority,“ VA Secretary Dr. David J. Shulkin said. “I am committed to reducing veteran suicides through support and education. We know that of the 20 suicides a day that we reported last year, 14 are not under VA care. This is a national public health issue that requires a concerted, national approach.”
A “concerted, national approach” is difficult at best, because there’s not one typical profile of a veteran at risk and not one treatment that works for everyone. VA’s National Deputy Director for Suicide Prevention, Dr. Meghan McCarthy, recently spoke with ConnectingVets.com’s Morning Briefing host Eric Dehm and explained part of the problem.
“Sometimes veterans have difficulty identifying mental health challenges or readjustment issues,” McCarthy said. “They may not know that what they are struggling with is a mental health issue. Some veterans may notice their symptoms, but really aren’t sure what to do with them. Some notice the challenges and notice they may have symptoms, but may not know that treatment works and recovery is possible. Treatment does work, recovery is possible. We know this from a large body of research.”
That large body of research, including this latest report, will help the VA identify those at risk and intervene early. Screenings and assessment processes have been set up throughout the VA’s system to help identify patients at risk, which lets the VA identify at risk veterans even before clinical signs of suicide are evident. Patients can then get an enhanced level of care which includes follow-ups for missed appointments, safety planning, follow-up visits and an individualized care plan that directly addresses the risk of suicide.
Veterans Affairs has several modern tools in its arsenal to combat veteran suicide. Tele-mental health service is now provided through 10 regional hubs across the VA’s healthcare system. There are now 13 mobile apps that veterans and their families can download and use the tools provided to help manage emotional and behavioral concerns. Readjustment counselors at the 300 community-based vet centers provide professional readjustment counseling to veterans and active duty servicemembers. When veterans can’t make it to the Vet Center, one of the VA’s 80 mobile vet centers heads out to reach as many rural-living veterans as possible.
Knowing that family members are often the first to notice a change in their veterans, the VA has developed Coaching into Care to help family members and friends talk to the veterans in their lives about seeking care.
A third Veterans Crisis Line (VCL) call center is opening for the VA this fall. This not only gives the VA more access to veterans in need, but it also expands the VA’s “press 7” feature, allowing anyone to pick up any VA phone and just press 7 to be connected to the Veterans Crisis Line.
Hotlines may seem old-school technology now, but since coming on line in 2007, the Veterans Crisis Line has made a difference. More than 3 million calls have been answered, 354,000 chat connections made and over 75,000 responses to text messages. Emergency services have been dispatched close to 82,000 times to callers in imminent suicidal crisis and the VCL has provide more than 475,000 referrals to a VA Suicide Prevention Coordinator, making sure veterans are connected to local care.
For more information, veterans who are currently enrolled in VA health care can talk to their VA mental health or health care provider. For a complete list of VA health care facilities, Vet Centers, local suicide prevention coordinator and other resources, you can start here: VeteransCrisisLine.net