VA looks for answers on veterans suicide rate
ALEXANDRIA — Twenty-two veterans die by suicide every day in the U.S., and taking into consideration the total U.S. population (315 million) and the number of veterans (22 million), that percentage seems disproportionately high.
Since 2001, per-day veteran suicides have remained between 18 and 22 nationally. In Minnesota, about 20 percent of people who die by suicide are veterans.
Since 2007, data has been collected and combined from the National Death Index, state mortality records, suicide behavior reports, veterans crisis line and the Department of Veterans Affairs’ universal electronic medical records.
The 2012 Suicide Data Report released by the VA was created from this compilation.
The report is intended to provide a better picture of what leads to veteran suicides, which can aid in suicide prevention program development and improve outcomes for veterans at risk for suicide. Previously, studies were based on information obtained primarily from veterans receiving care in VA facilities.
The project is ongoing; data from 21 states has been evaluated and entered into a single integrated file. Death by suicide has decreased percentage-wise among veterans. However, the number of deaths by suicide overall has increased.
Suicides numbered 147,763 between 2009 and 2012; 27,062 of the deceased were listed as having U.S. military service on death certificates.
Prior to a database cleanup effort comparing the death certificate indicator in Washington to the VA and Department of Defense records, veteran status was misclassified on 5 percent of death certificates. Eleven percent of veterans were classified as nonveterans, 2 percent of nonveterans were listed as veterans and only 67 percent of true female veterans were identified.
Call for help The majority of veteran suicides are among men and women 50 years and older. Most callers to the Veterans Crisis Line are men age 50 to 59. About 19 percent of callers to the crisis line call more than once each month, yet the rate of callers who had been thinking of suicide has decreased.
An increase in calls to the line has been attributed to a push to raise awareness, not to an influx of suicidal tendencies. A spike in call volume was noted in May 2011 when the VA changed the name from the “Veterans Suicide Prevention Line” to the “Veterans Crisis Line” and launched the “It’s Your Call” media campaign.
The 2012 Suicide Data Report identified the main method for nonfatal suicide events as overdose or other intentional poisoning (51 percent of attempts between 2009 and 2012). Other prevalent methods included: intentional self-harm (11.5 percent), firearms (10.9 percent), sharp objects (10.3 percent), hanging, strangulation or suffocation (6.5 percent), jumping, moving object (2.3 percent), another form of self-harm (2.1 percent) and unidentified sources accounted for 5.4 percent.
Prevention plan The VA office has evaluated the results from the report and has taken action to address key areas to locate where the disconnect is between discharge from service, evaluation, inpatient or outpatient services and a death or attempted suicide.
A task force has been created to provide recommendations for innovating mental health care, taking into particular consideration President Barack Obama’s mental health executive order that focusses on suicide prevention. Intervention strategies have been developed for groups that may need additional help; women and Vietnam-era veterans are included in this area.
The Veterans Crisis Line and outreach communication strategies will continue to be evaluated. Follow-up reports have been planned for later this year.
The Veterans Crisis Line is staffed 24 hours a day, seven days a week by trained VA employees with backgrounds in mental health services. Help is available by calling (800) 273-8255 (press 1), at www.VeteransCrisisLine.net or via text to 838255.