Epidemic: 6000+ U.S. Veterans Committed Suicide in 2009

Posted on Jun 2, 2010 in Health & Wellness

Posted: 11 May 2010 09:45 AM PDT

defense – With more than 6,000 veterans committing suicide every year –- and 98 veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan taking their own lives during fiscal 2009 alone — the Department of Veterans Affairs is redoubling its outreach to veterans and promoting its toll-free suicide-prevention hotline.

National statistics show that veterans constitute about 20 percent of the 30,000 to 32,000 U.S. deaths each year from suicide. Of an average of 18 veterans who commit suicide each day, about five receive care through the VA health-care system. More than 60 percent of those five had diagnosed mental-health conditions.

Dr. Janet E. Kemp, VA’s national suicide prevention coordinator, is committed to improving those statistics. She’s heading up an aggressive outreach program to address problems that lead to suicide, and to ensure veterans as well as their loved ones know where to turn for help.

Speaking with reporters yesterday, Kemp cited mounting evidence that veterans in the 18- to 29-year-old age group who use VA health-care services are less likely to commit suicide than those who don’t.

Based on statistical comparisons between the two groups, she estimated that 250 fewer veterans enrolled in the VA system take their own lives each year. She credited VA’s screening and assessment processes designed to identify high-risk patients and provide intervention, as needed.

Yet, during fiscal 2009, 707 members of the general veteran population died at their own hands, and another 10,665 made unsuccessful suicide attempts. In addition to the 98 veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan who committed suicide – 94 men and four women – there were 1,868 who made non-fatal attempts on their lives. Of these, 1,621 were men and 247 were women, reflecting trends in the general U.S. population.

“Just one death is one too many,” said Dr. Antonette Zeiss, deputy chief for mental health services at VA’s central office. “The bottom line is, the efforts we put into enhancing overall mental health services have correlated with the reduction of suicide,” especially among males who served in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Alarmed by an increase in suicides among this population between 2003 and 2004, VA adopted a comprehensive mental health strategic plan in 2004 that has helped to bring the numbers down.

Much of the plan is dedicated to increasing veterans’ access to mental-health services. VA hired 6,000 additional mental-health professionals since 2004, bringing its full complement of providers to 20,000, Zeiss said.

“Access to care makes a difference,” she said. “We have worked on improving access to care for all veterans.”

VA mental health professionals are based at every VA medical center and the largest community-based clinic, and provide same- or next-day help to veterans in need, she said.

In addition, VA established a toll-free national suicide hotline in July 2007 that Kemp said receives about 10,000 calls a month from veterans as well as currently serving soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines.

Kemp credited the hotline with stopping 7,000 suicides in progress, in which callers were actively hurting themselves or in imminent danger of taking their own lives.

In addition, VA initiated an online chat service last July, accessible through its suicide prevention Web site. The chat line enables veterans and their families and friends to go online to chat anonymously with a trained VA counselor. To date, almost 4,000 “chatters” have used the service, with several referred to the hotline for immediate care, Kemp reported.

To get the word out about these initiatives, VA launched an advertising campaign in 124 U.S. cities, with public service announcements featuring actor Gary Sinise and TV broadcaster Deborah Norville.

Kemp said she’s received anecdotal evidence that the campaign already is having an impact. She cited one veteran who traveled to Las Vegas with the intent to commit suicide, writing a suicide note and making final preparations to take his life. Then, by chance, he noticed a poster about the VA suicide prevention hotline on a wall at a local bus stop and placed the call that ultimately saved his life.

“He’s now alive and well and telling his story of success,” Kemp said.

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Increase in Suicide Rate of Veterans Noted

armytimes – The suicide rate among 18- to 29-year-old men who’ve left the military has gone up significantly, the government said Monday.

The rate for these veterans went up 26 percent from 2005 to 2007, according to preliminary data from the Veterans Affairs Department. VA officials said they assume that most of the veterans in this age group served in Iraq or Afghanistan.

If there is a bright spot in the data, it’s that in 2007 veterans in the group who used VA health care were less likely to commit suicide than those who did not. That’s a change from 2005.

In recent years, the VA has hired thousands of new mental health professionals and established a suicide hot line credited with “rescues” of nearly 6,000 veterans and military members in distress.

The military has also struggled with an increase in suicides, with the Army seeing a record number last year. While the military frequently releases such data, it has been more difficult to track suicide information on veterans once they’ve left active duty.

The VA calculated the numbers using Centers for Disease Control and Prevention numbers from 16 states. In 2005, the rate per 100,000 veterans among men ages 18-29 was 44.99, compared with 56.77 in 2007, the VA said. It did not release data for other population groups.

At a suicide prevention conference on Monday in Washington, VA Secretary Eric Shinseki said his agency needs to do a better job understanding what led to each suicide. He said he’d also like to see more stringent protocol put into place at VA facilities about how to handle a potentially suicidal veteran, similar to what’s done with someone who’s having a heart attack.

He noted that of the more than 30,000 suicides each year in America, about 20 percent are committed by veterans.

“Why do we know so much about suicides but still know so little about how to prevent them?” Shinseki said. “Simple question, but we continue to be challenged.”

Epidemic: 6000+ U.S. Veterans Committed Suicide in 2009

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