The National Desk: VA shows rise in veteran suicides after 2 years of declines
(TND) — A new Veterans Affairs report shows an increase in veteran suicides after back-to-back years of declines.
And the report once again shows that veterans are at a higher risk for suicide than the general population.
“There is nothing more important to VA than preventing Veteran suicide — nothing,” VA Secretary Denis McDonough said in a news release. “One Veteran suicide will always be too many, and we at VA will use every tool to our disposal to prevent these tragedies and save Veterans’ lives.”
The most recent data comes from 2021, which the VA noted coincided with the pandemic.
The VA said 6,392 veterans died by suicide in 2021, up by 114 from the year before.
The age- and sex-adjusted suicide rate among Veterans increased by 11.6%, compared to a 4.5% increase for nonveteran adults.
And suicide was the second-leading cause of death among veterans under age 45.
The suicide rate among veterans increased for every age group except those over 75.
Stopping veteran suicide is also a top priority for advocacy group Mission Roll Call.
Cole Lyle, a former Marine and Mission Roll Call’s executive director, said the increase in 2021 did not surprise him, given the stress created for veterans not just from COVID-19, but also from the Afghanistan withdrawal.
Lyle said despite the VA’s stated focus on suicide prevention, its progress on the issue “has been nominal at best.”
Data collection issues obscure the real scope of the problem, he said. Lyle believes the VA undercounts overdose deaths.
“If you speak to a veteran, they're either going to know somebody personally or they're going to know a friend of theirs that also served that lost somebody to suicide,” Lyle said.
And the VA’s approach is too “reactionary,” he said.
The VA must pour resources into catching “those issues before they spiral into this critical mass of despair,” Lyle said.
Lyle admitted it’s not all the VA’s fault, and suicide is a complicated problem.
But he called for Congress and the VA to put their money where their mouth is, noting that the VA’s suicide prevention budget is less than one-tenth of 1% of the VA’s full budget.
And he wants to see the expansion of the Staff Sergeant Parker Gordon Fox Suicide Prevention Grant Program.
Congress authorized $174 million over a three-year period for the VA to support community-based suicide prevention efforts.
Fox grants provided $52.5 million to 80 community-based organizations in 43 states last fiscal year, the VA said.
“If they expand that funding and empower local organizations at the community level that can intercede with veteran problems earlier than the crisis point, then we can leverage them and make more meaningful progress on this issue,” Lyle said.
Over 60% of veterans who died by suicide in 2021 were not seen in the VA’s health care system in 2020 or 2021.
Not only does the VA fail to reach a huge portion of veterans, but the type of meaningful connections needed to save a life are best formed within a local community, Lyle said.
“When a veteran gets to that point, and I've been there myself, you feel alone,” Lyle said. “You feel like nobody cares. You feel like you're unlovable ... You're bleak, is the best way to describe it. And a connection — that's why connecting to your family, to your friends, to organizations is key. But you can't do that from a federal level.”
The VA laid out some efforts since 2021 to reduce veteran suicide.
The shorter 988 (then press 1) Veterans Crisis Line was launched in the summer of 2022. That resulted in a 12% increase in use of the crisis line.
Over 70% of veteran suicides involved firearms in 2021. And since then, the VA said it has promoted secure storage of firearms, including the distribution of more than 400,000 gun locks.
And it noted its efforts to reach veterans at the grassroots level via community partnerships.