Veteran suicide rate complicated – solution shouldn’t be

Last month, another U.S. military veteran took his own life on a Veteran’s Administration campus. This is the sixth veteran suicide in the public areas of Florida’s Bay Pines VA facility in the last six years. This latest incident is also part of the ever-growing rate of veteran suicides each year, and part of a nationwide increase in suicides among all adults.

Is the increase in veteran suicides a direct result of the surge in the U.S.’s overall adult suicide rate? Unfortunately, it’s not that simple.

The suicide rates announced in the latest Veterans’ Administration report are the result of a complex evaluation of age, gender, finances, U.S. population increase, veteran population decrease, military duty status, treatment status, changes in study criteria and other variables. The rising veteran suicide rates must be analyzed in context with so many other factors; it’s almost impossible to draw meaningful conclusions from the data.

Despite sincere efforts to address the crisis — Trump signed an executive order in 2018 allowing all veterans to receive mental health care during the high-risk first year after separation, and an interagency task force was established in March to tackle the issue — the fact remains that 17 “Title 38 Veterans” and four active-duty, Reserve and Guard members kill themselves every day. That’s one death every minute and eight seconds.

In news stories about the rash of veteran suicides on VA campuses across the U.S., experts postulated that suicide victims blame the VA.

Eric Caine, director of the Injury Control Research Center for Suicide Prevention at the University of Rochester, told the Washington Post after a series of VA parking lot suicides last year, “These suicides are sentinel events. It’s very important for the VA to recognize that the place of a suicide can have great meaning. There is a real moral imperative and invitation here to take a close inspection of the quality of services at the facility level.”

Caine’s theory might be a desperate shot at simplifying the veteran suicide conundrum; however, veterans themselves pointed fingers at the VA before pointing weapons at themselves.    

Army veteran John Toombs posted, “I dared to dream again. Then you showed me the door faster than last night’s garbage,” before hanging himself outside the Murfreesboro, Tennessee, VA hospital, where he had been kicked out of treatment for not following instructions.

Two years later, investigators found a suicide note near the uniformed body of Marine Col. Jim Tuner outside Florida’s Bay Pines VA facility.

“I bet if you look at the 22 suicides a day you will see VA screwed up in 90%,” Turner wrote before turning a rifle on himself.

The following April, three more veterans killed themselves at VA campuses. One victim shot himself in the crowded lobby of a Texas VA outpatient clinic, which was seen by most as an obvious message.

Despite the blame some have placed squarely on the VA, there are no easy answers. In fact, figures show that the rate of suicide in VA medical centers is lower than the private sector. After the VA made prevention its top clinical priority, the rate of suicide in VA hospitals has dropped more than 80 percent and 419 of 466 suicide attempts in 2019 on VA campuses were stopped.

However, of the 17 veterans who kill themselves every day, 10.4 don’t use VHA services at all.

So far, promising improvements in VA care have not resulted in real progress in the overall crisis. No matter how many experts weigh in, no matter how many task forces are created, no matter how many variables are studied, no matter how many veterans kill themselves on VA campuses, no one can make any sense of this complex trend.

Instead of putting any more resources toward unraveling the impossible tangle of causes and variables, perhaps the government should fund simple, common-sense preventive measures: Standardize VA quality control and bring low-rated facilities up to par. Institute more outreach to at-risk veterans who do not use VHA. Give VA staff better training in suicide prevention strategies.

It may not be that simple, but it’s time to stop trying, and simply start doing.

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