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New VA report shows vet suicides increased in 2018

Secretary of Veterans Affairs Robert Wilkie speaks at Arlington National Cemetery, Arlington, Virginia, Nov. 11, 2018. (Elizabeth Fraser/Arlington National Cemetery)
November 12, 2020

The Department of Veterans Affairs on Thursday released its annual report on veteran suicide rates for 2018, in which it assessed a slight increase in overall veteran suicides for the year, although it found veteran suicide rates went down among those who recently used VA services.

The report, which examines the change in the rate of suicide among veterans compared to the previous year, found that in 2018 “the average number of Veteran suicides per day rose from 17.5 to 17.6” when compared to 2017 data. Despite the uptick in overall veteran suicides, the VA reported the rate of suicide among veterans who recently used Veterans Health Administration (VHA) services dropped 2.4 percent, while among veterans who had not recently used VHA services the rate of suicides increased 2.5 percent.

The VA suicide report lags two years behind and the report notes it has no figures from the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic prevalent through most of 2020. The VA states, “In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, VA is monitoring trends in suicide-related behaviors. Thus far, findings do not indicate increases in suicide-related behavior among Veterans in VHA care.”

“The suicide data presented in this new report is an integral part of VA’s Public Health Model for Suicide Prevention, which combines evidence-based clinical interventions and proactive community-based prevention strategies to address suicide in our nation,” VA Secretary Robert Wilkie said in a statement accompanying the 49-page report. “The data shows the rate of suicide among Veterans who recently used VA health services has decreased, an encouraging sign as the department continues its work and shares what we learn with those who care for and about Veterans.”

The VA report found suicides among VHA patients diagnosed with depression decreased from 2005 to 2018, from 72.9 per 100,000 to 66.4 per 100,000. The 2018 rate was an increase from 65.1 per 100,000 in 2017.

Among VHA patients diagnosed with anxiety, the suicide rate decreased from 2005 to 2018, from 83.1 per 100,000 to 67.0 per 100,000. The 2018 suicide rate was an increase from 65.6 per 100,000 in 2017.

The VA marked an overall decrease in suicide rates among patients with a mental health or substance use disorder diagnosis. In 2018, those patients had a suicide rate of 57.2 per 100,000, compared with 58.6 per 100,000 in 2005 and 57.9 per 100,000 in 2017.

The VA also noted suicide rates among the general population continue to rise, “The average rose from 86.6 per day in 2005 to 124.4 in 2017 and 127.4 in 2018.” During the same period, “The average number of Veteran suicides per day rose from 16.6 in 2005 to 17.6 in 2018.”

In its conclusion, the VA states, “This report offers data points that suicide is indeed preventable through clinically based and community-based prevention efforts and interventions, as well as through research and surveillance within and beyond the VA.”

The VA states improved suicide prevention “will require a public health approach unifying clinical, community, and academic domains.”