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Combatting Suicides

Nearly one in five suicides nationally is a veteran, 49,000 took own lives between 2005 and 2011

The suicide statistics among troops and veterans are alarming – the number of active duty suicide deaths is now starting to outpace the number of deaths on the battlefield, and the 2012 VA Suicide Data Report found that 22 veterans die every day by suicide.

Veterans are killing themselves at more than double the rate of the civilian population with about 49,000 taking their own lives between 2005 and 2011, according to data collected over eight months by News21. 

Records from 48 states show the annual suicide rate among veterans is about 30 for every 100,000 of the population, compared to a civilian rate of about 14 per 100,000. The suicide rate among veterans increased an average 2.6 percent a year from 2005 to 2011, or more than double that of the 1.1 percent civilian rate, according to News21’s analysis of states’ mortality data.

Nearly one in every five suicides nationally is a veteran — 18 to 20 percent annually — compared with Census data that shows veterans make up about 10 percent of the U.S. adult population.  

“Anytime a veteran who fought our enemies abroad or helped defend America from within our borders dies by their own hand, it’s completely unacceptable,” Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., chairman of the House Committee on Veteran’s Affairs, told an American Legion conference in Washington earlier this year. The suicide rate has remained consistently high, he said, adding that more work was needed to address gaps in veterans’ mental health care.

“It’s not enough that the veteran suicide problem isn’t getting worse,” he said, “it isn’t getting any better.”

A 2007 law required the Department of Veterans Affairs to increase its suicide prevention efforts. In response to the Joshua Omvig Veteran Suicide Prevention Act — named for an Iraq war veteran who committed suicide in 2005 — the department’s efforts include educating the public about suicide risk factors, providing additional mental health resources for veterans and tracking veteran suicides in each state. The VA’s mental health care staff and budget have grown by nearly 40 percent over the last six years and more veterans are seeking mental health treatment.

The law mandated that the VA design a comprehensive program to reduce veteran suicides. Provisions included training VA staff in suicide-prevention techniques, factoring mental health concerns in overall veteran health assessments, providing referrals at veterans’ request to treatment programs and designating suicide-prevention counselors at VA medical centers. It also required the VA to work with the other federal departments on researching the “best practices” for preventing suicides.

 
Our service members and veterans need strong leadership to stop these numbers from escalating even further. It is important to remember that, in most cases, death by suicide is a culminating event. It is the result of failure to address the wide spectrum of transitional challenges confronting veterans. Any efforts to address suicide must, therefore, focus on a holistic approach to the wellness of veterans and service members, which must be driven by public policy.

The Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention for American Veterans (SAV) Act, passed by the 114th Congress and signed into law by President Obama on Feb. 12, 2015, will help reduce military and veteran suicides and improve access to quality mental health care. Read more about the SAV Act here: www.iava.org/savact.

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