A troubling new report released by the Department of Veterans Affairs showed that at least 60,000 veterans killed themselves between 2008 and 2017, with suicide rates among veterans continuing to climb. According to the report, 2017’s 6,100 veteran suicides represented a 2% increase over the previous year and a 6% increase since 2008. However, despite the trend continuing to worsen, the VA reported that the oft touted “20 suicides a day” figure is no longer accurate, claiming the new statistic should be 17 per day. If that math doesn’t quite add up to you, it’s because the VA decided to change how they did their math to remove service members, national guard and reserve, who have not been federally activated.
In other words, despite suicides going up, the VA chose to narrow the pool of people that qualify as “veterans” for the sake of their figures to adjust that total suicide rate down to 17 per day. On average, non-activated guard and reserve members kill themselves at a rate of 2.5 per day.
“This change was necessary because these groups are unique and do not all qualify for the same benefits and services, therefore they require individualized outreach strategies,” the VA said in a statement.
The report further showed that suicide rates among male veterans are far higher than civilians, at 1.3 times the normal adult rate. However, for women, the figures are even more troubling, with female service members omitting suicide at 2.2 times the 2017 rate for adult women. The highest suicide rates among veterans of both genders fall between the ages of 18 and 34, with 2017 showing 44.5 suicides for every 100,000 veterans in that age demographic. However, suicide rates among older veterans remains high, with veterans between the ages of 55 and 74 accounting for 38 percent of all veteran suicide deaths in 2017.
VA Secretary Robert Wilkie made a point to say that the VA couldn’t stem the tide of veteran suicide alone, calling on community organizations to assist in the effort to remove the stigma associated with mental health and encourage troubled veterans to seek care.
“VA is working to prevent suicide among all veterans, whether they are enrolled in VA health care or not,” Wilkie said. “That’s why the department has adopted a comprehensive public health approach to suicide prevention, using bundled strategies that cut across various sectors — faith communities, employers, schools and health care organizations, for example — to reach veterans where they live and thrive.”
However, despite Wilkie’s sentiments, the VA has demonstrated a troubling lack of effort regarding suicide prevention outreach in recent years. Earlier this year, SOFREP reported on a substantial drop off in suicide prevention outreach efforts from the VA throughout 2017 and 2018.
In 2018, America’s veterans saw a large drop in social media content addressing suicide—just 47 posts in 2018 compared to 339 in 2016.Further, despite having more than $6.2 million allocated for paid suicide prevention advertising on television and radio, the VA didn’t produce a single piece of content for those platforms. The agency just left that money on the table. In total, only $57,000 of that $6.2 million was actually spent on efforts to curb veteran suicide.
“Veterans and Congress have spent the last decade making sure that suicide prevention is the VA’s top clinical priority, and in the last two years, it appears the VA has nearly completely abandoned that mission,” Vietnam Veterans of America President John Rowan said in a statement.
According to a report released by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), the VA effectively stopped working on suicide prevention in 2018 due to its revolving door of senior leaders, including four turnovers at the Secretary of Veterans Affairs level over the past year alone.
“VA has stated that preventing veteran suicide is its top clinical priority, yet [the Veterans Health Administration’s] lack of leadership attention to its suicide prevention media outreach campaign in recent years has resulted in less outreach to veterans,” the GAO report read.
Despite drawing attention to this issue months ago, it doesn’t appear things have improved dramatically within the VA’s suicide prevention efforts. Keita Frankin, the director of the VA’s suicide prevention office, left her position after nearly two years in June. Veterans Crisis Line Director Matt Miller is currently filling the role in in interim position with no permanent replacement named yet, despite the position being open for three months.