Number of veteran deaths by suicide rose slightly in 2017, VA report says

Abbie Bennett
September 20, 2019 - 1:36 pm
VeteranSuicideCrisisLine

Photo by Zachary Hada/55th Wing Public Affairs

More than 6,600 veterans died by suicide from 2008 to 2017, according to a newly released Department of Veterans Affairs report, and veteran suicides increased in 2017. 

An average of 16.8 veterans each day died by suicide in 2017, up from about 15.9 in 2005 and up about 2 percent from 16.4 in 2016, the report says -- a departure from the VA's previous data that showed an average of 20 deaths daily. 

That's because VA's new report does not include National Guard and Reserve veterans who were never federally activated in that total daily number. In the new report, VA changed how it counts veteran deaths by suicide, separating those never-activated Guard and Reserve veterans. About 2.5 of those veterans died by suicide daily in 2017, the report says. 

When added to the 16.8 veteran deaths, those 2.5 deaths daily come closer to VA's previously reported rate of about 20 veteran deaths by suicide every day. 

Dr. Richard Stone, executive in charge of the Veterans Health Administration, said in a letter than accompanied the report that "there is no significant change in the suicide death data between 2016 and 2017." 

"Suicide is a national public health problem that disproportionately affects those who served our nation," Stone wrote. "Preventing suicide among veterans is VA's top clinical priority."

The report newly defines veterans as someone who was activated for federal military service and who was not actively serving at their time of death. VA says the 20 veteran suicides daily reported first in 2014 was a combination of veterans, current service members and never-activated Guard and Reserve veterans. 

The decision to separate the groups of veterans was made "based upon discussion with our colleagues in the Department of Defense," Stone said in his letter. "Therefore, DoD is publishing a separate report of current service member suicide deaths." 

VASuicideDailyTable
Department of Veterans Affairs

The 2019 National Veteran Suicide Prevention Report VA released Friday afternoon shows:

  • A 6.1 percent increase in veteran death by suicide from 2005 to 2017, compared to a 43.6 percent increase among all U.S. adults over the same time period. 
  • Among U.S. adults, the average number of suicides daily rose from about 87 in 2005 to 124 in 2017, including about 16 veterans per day in 2005 and about 17 veterans daily in 2017. 
  • In 2017, the rate of death by suicide for veterans was 1.5 times higher than non-veteran adults.
  • About 71 percent of male veterans died by suicide using a firearm in 2017. About 43 percent of women veterans died by suicide using a gun. About 48 percent of non-veterans die by suicide using a firearm. 
  • In addition to those veteran deaths by suicide, 919 never federally activated former National Guard and Reserve veterans died in 2017, an average of about 2.5 daily. 
  • The number of veteran suicides per year was lowest in 2006 and the highest in 2014. 
  • The average number of veteran deaths by suicide daily has stayed the same or risen each year since 2007. 

VA2017SuicidePreventionReport
Department of Veterans Affairs

Data through 2017 is the latest available, VA said.

Demographics

Veterans 18-34 years old had the highest rate of suicide in 2017 -- 44.5 per 100,000, which increased about 76 percent from 2005 to 2017. 

Veterans 55-74 had the lowest suicide rate in 2017, about 27 per 100,000. 

The total number of veterans who died by suicide was highest among veterans 55-74, accounting for about 38 percent of all veteran deaths by suicide in 2017. 

Women veterans were about 2.2 times more likely to die by suicide than non-veteran women in 2017, the report said. Male veterans were about 1.3 times more likely to die by suicide than non-veteran men. 

About 16.8 women veterans died by suicide per 100,000 in 2017, compared to about 39.1 men per 100,000. 

The women veterans population increased by 6.5 percent from 2005 to 2017.

Contributing factors

VA's report names five main contributors to veteran death by suicide: economic disparities, homelessness, whether or not a veteran has a service-connected disability, social connection and isolation, health and wellbeing. 

About 40,000 veterans were homeless in 2017, the report says, and more than 15,300 were living on the street or unsheltered "on any given night." 

Access to VA

Veterans who recently accessed VA were more likely to die by suicide, the report said. 

Each year from 2005 to 2017, veterans with recent access to the Veterans Health Administration had higher suicide rates than veterans who had not recently accessed VA. 

Of the veterans who died by suicide in 2017 (not including never-activated Guard and Reservists), 11 had not accessed VA recently, while 6 had. 

Mental health

Of those, about 59 percent had a diagnosed mental health or substance use disorder in 2016 and 2017. 

In 2017, veterans with mental health or substance use disorder diagnoses at VA had an about 56.9 percent suicide rate per 100,000, a number which has risen very slightly since 2005.

Veterans at VA with a depression diagnosis had a slightly lower suicide rate in 2017 than in 2005 -- 63.4 percent, down from 70.2 percent. 

Stone issued a call to help VA prevent veteran suicide.

"We cannto do this alone," he wrote. "We call on our community partners to join us in this effort." 

To read the full 2017 report, click here

For more information on potential warning signs of suicide, click here.

If you or someone you know needs help, contact the Veteran Crisis Line 24/7 at 1-800-273-8255 (select option 1 for a VA staff member). Veterans, service members or their families also can text 838255 or go to veteranscrisisline.net.

Reach Abbie Bennett: abbie@connectingvets.com or @AbbieRBennett

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