More American military service veterans have died by suicide over the years since 9 11 than have died in active combat. The Veterans Administration publishes an annual report called the National Veteran Suicide Prevention Report in which the September 2022 edition in which they report that an unadjusted veteran suicide rate in 2001 of 23.3 per 100,000 veterans and 31.7 per 100,000 in 2020. These numbers are significantly higher than in the civilian population where there were 12.6 suicides pers 100,000 in 2001 and 16.1 per 100,000 in 2020. Evidence has arisen questioning the accuracy of veteran suicide numbers. How accurate are veteran suicide statistics and how much worse might they be?
2022 Annual VA Veteran Suicide Report
A further breakdown of the VA report shows suicides by sub-categories. The suicide rate for veterans aged 18 to 34 was 46.1 per 100,000, aged 35-54 was 31.8, 55-74 was 27.4 per 100,000 and for those 75 and older the rate was 32.0 per 100,000.
The breakdown of suicide by gender was 33.7 per 100,00 for men in 2020 and 13.3 per 100,000 for women. Both sets of 2020 stats were lower than in 2019, down by 2.3% for men and down by 20.3% for women.
Across all categories of age and gender veteran suicides rose at higher rates among veterans than in the non-veteran population with the worst year being 2017 when veterans suicide rates were two-thirds higher than non-veteran rates. Although this difference improved by 2020 it still stood at 57.3%.
Accuracy of Suicide Statistics Called into Question
One of the issues in getting handle on just how many people and veterans in particular take their own lives lies in how data for suicides in generated. If a veteran is actively in the VA system and even getting help for PTSD, depression, or traumatic brain syndrome which are major risk factors for suicide and they take their own life it is highly likely that their dead with enter the pool of data a suicide. But, if that same veteran is back in the community and not connected in any way to the VA system and takes their own life, that act may or may not make it into their death certificate, be reported at a state level, and be picked up by the VA folks who are collecting data. The medical examiner may know the family or for some other reason choose not to report a death a suicide. And the suicide may be a non-violent act that such as a medicine overdose that is not picked up by the medical examiner in a patient with multiple medical problems. Specifically recent reports indicate that official veteran suicide numbers may be as low as half of what they really are.
Recent Veteran Suicide Study
A recent study showed that Coast Guard veterans as a group are at the highest risk for suicide with those who served for less than three years and those who were demoted while in the service being a highest risk. The study in question was carried out by Duke University, the University of Alabama, and America’s Warrior Partnership. These folks looked at data from 2014 to 2018 in the states of Oregon, Montana, Minnesota, Michigan, Massachusetts, Maine, Florida, and Alabama. According to the researchers these states were the only ones that they found to be reliable and they indicated suicides rates as much as double those reported in federal (VA) stats.
The assumption that researchers made was that suicide rates in the states they used for data did not differ from those in other states but that inaccurate reporting made other state data suspect. Thus they took the data from their eight states and calculated suicide rates for the nation based on those assumptions. Using their projected numbers the national daily rate of veterans suicides during the 2014 to 2018 period was not 17.7 a day but rather 44 veterans who took their own lives every day.
The researchers state that overdose deaths were the biggest category contributing to deaths not being reported as suicides. Another significant issue was that very commonly a veteran’s military history was left out of any reports so an obvious suicide went in the non-veteran stats rather than veteran stats.
At issue with this after-the-fact data is a clear picture of the severity of the problem and where it resides within the community of veterans is essential in order for funding to be directed to appropriate resources and for those resources to be properly directed toward the right veterans to make a difference.