BY:  Meghan Stubblebine

The Department of Veterans Affairs released a report early this February revealing a startling statistic: an average of twenty-two veterans commit suicide each day. The Suicide Data Report, published by Dr. Janet Kemp and Dr. Robert Bossarte, tracked suicides and suicide attempts among veterans from 1999 to 2010. The report found that the number of suicides among veterans increased during the course of the study, but the overall percentage of veterans committing suicide decreased compared to the general population. Sixty-nine percent of veterans that committed suicide were fifty years or older, with ninety-seven percent of suicide victims male. Vietnam era veterans appear to be at the forefront of veterans most impacted by suicide.

Although these fatal suicide statistics are distressing, the report’s statistics regarding non-fatal suicides are also very concerning. In 2012, almost 11,000 veterans using services from the Veterans Health Administration attempted suicide but survived. Over fifty percent of these non-fatal suicide events happened as a result of overdoses or intentional poisoning. The report did not state a finding about how many of the overdoses and poisonings were due to illicit drugs. Veterans’ advocates could benefit from future reports that determine how many of these attempts were due to illicit drug overdoses. Links between illicit drug usage, suicide, and post-traumatic stress disorder may impact whether the Department of Veterans Affairs will codify a causal connection between the three problems. This could greatly change the way mental health services are provided and disability claims granted.

There is one hopeful statistic in the report. The study found that preliminary evidence from 2012 suggests a decrease in the rate of non-fatal suicide attempts for veterans who utilize the Veterans Health Administration’s services. Additionally, the Department of Veterans Affairs will use this report’s findings to better serve the at-risk veteran population. The Department of Veterans Affairs now recognizes that the first four weeks following service at the Veterans Health Administration are some of the most dangerous for at-risk veterans. The Department now will increase monitoring and care management during this time period. Beyond publishing this report, the Department is also recommending changes to the way the Veterans Health Administration approaches helping at-risk veterans. This report has the potential to cause real effective change at the department.

Although this report’s information is revealing, it is not surprising due to the many studies finding high rates of post-traumatic stress disorder and suicidal tendencies among the veteran population. Prior to the Department of Veterans Affairs’ study, many studies found that veterans are at a drastically greater risk of suicide than the general population. In a study published by the American Journal of Public Health, veterans between the ages of 17 and 24 are at four times greater risk of committing suicide than the general population. This Clinic is founded on the understanding of the great need for mental health services for veterans.  The Lewis B. Puller Jr. Clinic was named in honor of a Pulitzer prize winning Vietnam veteran who suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder and ultimately succumbed to suicide. He died from over two and a half decades ago from the problems the department is beginning to address now.

The Department of Veterans Affairs is correct in changing how it approaches suicide prevention among veterans. This problem desperately needs to be addressed, particularly with millions more men and women leaving the military over the next few years. The greatest issue the Department of Veterans Affairs will struggle with over the next few years is whether it adjusts quickly enough to stop this epidemic from worsening. The department-wide emphasis on large scale improvements to mental health services is still new and significant changes may not come quickly. There is still much work to do, but the Department of Veterans Affairs is taking a positive step forward in helping veterans get the help they need and deserve.

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