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Why do we have a Veteran suicide epidemic?

In recent years, U.S. veterans have fallen victim to alarmingly high suicide rates. A recent Department of Veterans Affairs study found that 7,403 veterans committed suicide in 2014: approximately 20 veterans died by suicide every single day that year. To put these numbers into perspective, an average of 117 people commit suicide every day in the United States, which means that veterans accounted for 18% of all the country’s suicides in 2014, while comprising only 8.5% of the population. Some groups of veterans are harder hit by this morbid trend than others. The worst suicide pattern is among young male veterans ages 18-29, who suffered a rate of 86 suicides per 100,000 people in 2014. The rate of the next hardest-hit veteran demographic, young female veterans ages 18-29, was 33 per 100,000. These numbers are far, far higher than the overall U.S. suicide rate of 13 per 100,000 people. In fact, female veterans under 30 years old are more than six times as likely to commit suicide than civilian women.

This recent VA study offers the first concrete look at the rates at which our nation’s veterans are committing suicide. In 2012, the VA released an estimate that 22 veterans were dying each day by suicide, but that number was extrapolated from data using 3 million death records from only 20 states. This sample excluded four states with large veteran populations – California, Texas, Arizona, and North Carolina – and relied on state death certificates on which family members voluntarily listed their loved one’s veteran status. For these reasons, the VA’s 2012 estimate of veteran suicide rates was far from certain, and the number of veterans committing suicide daily was likely even higher than 22. The 2014 numbers, on the other hand, are far more accurate, based as they are on data from all fifty states, as well as from the Centers for Disease Control. While the 22 daily veteran suicides in 2012 versus 20 in 2014 numbers may seem to indicate that the veteran suicide rate has declined from 2012 to 2014, this is not the case. The veteran suicide rate has increased, but because the total number of veterans is declining as World War II and Korean War veterans age, the actual number of veterans committing suicide every day has decreased.

The Department of Veterans Affairs is treating this suicide epidemic as an issue of the highest priority. One of their strategies for ameliorating the problem is to increase the number of eligible veterans enrolled in their health care programs. The department has found that male veterans who use VA health services commit suicide at a 78% lower rate than those who do not use VA health services, and female veterans at a 95% lower rate. According to David Shulkin, VA Undersecretary for Health, “Too many people are falling through the cracks between active service and when they get to the VA.” The VA is thus working with the military to contact veterans who have recently left the service but who are not yet using the health care system. The Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention for American Veterans (SAV) Act, passed February 12, 2015, further aimed to increase veterans’ access to mental health care through a peer support and community outreach program and through a website that lists the mental health resources available to them. All together, these efforts foster “a climate that encourages service-members to seek help,” in the words of Marine Lt. Col. Hermes Gabrielle.

In addition to encouraging more veterans to seek mental health care, the VA is enacting other strategies to decrease the veteran suicide rate, such as augmenting their existing health care programs and identifying the veterans who are at the highest risk of suicide. The department has added staff to its crisis hotline for veterans (800-273-8255), has hired more than 9,000 mental health clinicians since 2009, and has expanded its program offering mental health therapy by telephone. The VA has also created programs offering same-day treatment for veterans with urgent mental health needs, and aims to further increase its mental health staff by paying off the loan debt of psychiatry students, making it easier to recruit them. This fall, the VA will also deploy a newly developed technology intended to decrease veteran suicide rates: a predictive modeling database that tracks hundreds of factors among veteran patients in order to identify those most likely to commit suicide. This will allow the department to focus its efforts on those veterans in the direst need of help.

ElderCounsel's annual VA Immersion Camp is taking place next month in Dallas. This is a fantastic opportunity for you to gain the knowledge and confidence you need to be profitable in this area of law. This one-and-a-half day course will enable you to grow your practice and to provide legal services to an underserved population.

Veterans Pension Planning Immersion Camp
September 15-16, 2016
Presented by:
Todd Whatley, JD, CELA, LLM and Whitney Wilson, JD
10.5 CLE, 1.0 Ethics
Agenda | Register
In February, the VA hosted a Veterans Suicide Summit in Washington, D.C., assembling a wide variety of health care professionals, veterans service organizations, and families directly impacted by veteran suicide. The attendees discussed possible solutions to the veteran suicide epidemic, and worked to formulate an action plan. This Summit, as well as the strategies enumerated above, are just the beginning of the wide variety of programs and initiatives that the VA must enact in the coming months and years in order to drive down the alarmingly high rates at which our nation’s veterans are dying by suicide. Let’s hope their efforts begin to pay off very soon.

ElderCounsel provides education, document drafting software, and support to attorneys across the country who represent Veterans. If you would like more information about our services contact us online or give us a call at 888.789.9908, option 3. 

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