(WASHINGTON) — The number of suicides among military veterans has fallen to its lowest rate in more than a decade, according to a report released Monday by the Department of Veterans Affairs. The latest figures come days after a national suicide prevention nonprofit said the federal agency was underestimating the problem.
After suicide cases among veterans increased from 2001 to 2018, the VA’s annual report documented a decline of nearly 10% between 2018 and 2020.
The VA recognized 6,146 veteran suicide deaths in 2020, the most recent year with reportable data. That’s 343 fewer cases than in 2019, marking the biggest drop since 2001. (Unlike veterans, according to Pentagon data, there were 580 suicides among current service members in 2020.)
The decline in veteran suicides persisted during the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020. The VA cited enhanced mental health programs, clinical support, community collaboration and paid media campaigns as methods important interventions for veterans in crisis.
But Monday’s report also acknowledged that more work needs to be done to create more comprehensive resources.
“Unemployment, chronic pain, insomnia, relationship strains, homelessness and bereavement are examples of factors outside of mental health that may play a role in suicide,” the report said. “We also need to move beyond the individual factors of suicide and seek to address broader international, national, community and relational factors that play a role.”
The VA said it remains cautiously encouraged by the falling suicide rate. The 10% drop between 2018 and 2020 is nearly double the 5.5% reduction among non-veteran adults over the same two-year period.
The problem still disproportionately affects ex-servicemen. The report determined that in 2020, the age- and gender-adjusted suicide rate among veterans was more than 57% higher than among non-veteran adults.
The VA found that on average in 2020, 16 veterans committed suicide every day.
Outside advocates say it could be an undercount: A report on Saturday said the number could be closer to 24. The suicide rate was 37% higher than the estimated VA between 2014 and 2018.
America’s Warrior Partnership said the discrepancy is “likely due to undercounting of [former service member deaths] and the greater specificity of demographics, military experience, and death details of the deceased available” to the nonprofit.
While America’s Warrior Partnership worked alongside Duke University and the University of Alabama using death records from eight states corroborated with the Department of Defense, the VA used data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Ministry of Defence.
The independent investigation, titled ‘Operation Deep Dive’, also found unique risk factors that influenced a former serviceman’s decision to take his own life. The report found that the longer a person served in the military, the less likely they were to commit suicide, with a decreasing rate of 2% per year of service.
The report also assessed that a demotion during military service was associated with a 56% increased risk of suicide.
America’s Warrior Partnership asked the VA to share its current data to better collaborate and make recommendations that would help former service members consider suicide.
“We need everyone around the table, leveraging work inside and outside of clinical health care delivery systems to reduce individual and societal risk factors for suicide,” said the AV at the end of his report. “The public health approach reminds us that what we do can and does make a difference.”
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