A new report by an independent veterans support organization finds that the rate of veteran suicide is much higher than reported by the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Last week, the VA released its 2022 National Veteran Suicide Prevention Annual Report concluding that roughly 17 veterans (16.8) took their lives per day in 2020, down from 18.6 per day in 2018.
Suicide was the second leading cause of death for veterans under the age of 45 in 2020.
The total number of deaths the VA attributed to suicide was 6,146, which was 343 less than 2019.
More than 6,000 veterans have taken their own lives per year since 2001.
“It definitely seems like there’s been an effort to just make things quiet at the VA,” he said.
O’Rourke noted the VA is not addressing the discrepancy between the two reports.
“We’re only seeing a reaction being, ‘That everything’s okay. We have the same rate. It’s maybe going down,’ but no acknowledgement of the great work these folks [the AWP] have done to unveil some pretty significant problems we have with counting this very vital statistic.”
The discrepancy between the VA and the AWP findings for the overall suicide rate can be explained by how each determined the cause of death.
The AWP researchers — working in collaboration with Duke University and the University of Alabama — used death information from counties in eight states: Alabama, Florida, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana and Oregon, then calculated the 24 veterans dying by suicide per day figure.
In turn, the VA used data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Department of Defense to reach a finding of roughly 16 per day taking their own life, according to ABC News.
Retired Army Brig. Gen. Jack Hammond — executive director of Home Base, a group that assists with veterans’ mental health — argued in RealClearDefense the AWP report represents the more accurate figure.
“Essentially, the VA did not dig deep enough, as Veterans will attempt to mask their suicide by making it look like an accident to avoid the stigma or financial impact on their family,” he wrote.
“This type of undercounting has been substantiated by previous research, which recognized that ‘Suicide determination is not standardized across medical examiners, and many suspected suicides are later classified as accidental or undetermined,’” Hammond added.
Thank you for having us @RepBost and giving us the opportunity to speak about #OperationDeepDive and veteran suicide prevention. There’s a lot of work ahead of us as a nation, but we know #TogetherWeCanDoBetter. https://t.co/lseDoIxKT1
— America’s Warrior Partnership (@AWPartnership) September 30, 2022
He further highlighted that the AWP report indicated the death rate could be as high as 44 per day, which would be 2.4 times higher than the VA’s rate.
“If the discrepancies identified by AWP are accurate, this could raise the total number of veterans lost to suicide since 2001 from 100,000 to 200,000, turning this national tragedy into a nightmare,” he wrote.
The VA stood by the accuracy of its figures following the release of the AWP report.
“Ending veteran suicide and saving lives is our top clinical priority at VA, and we take every step possible to make sure that our veteran suicide data is accurate — because the first step to solving this problem is understanding it,” VA Press Secretary Terrence Hayes said in an email Monday to Military.com.
“The bottom line is this: One veteran suicide is one too many, and VA will continue to accurately measure veteran suicide so we can end veteran suicide,” he added.
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The department offers funds to community suicide prevention efforts through the Staff Sgt. Parker Gordon Fox Suicide Prevention Grant Program and launched a competition in the spring to encourage organizations to bring their suicide prevention ideas to the VA.
“Dubbed Mission Daybreak, the VA announced 30 finalists Monday who will receive $250,000 each and move ahead in the competition. Ten additional teams earned awards of $100,000,” Military.com reported.
“Suicide is one of the most serious public health issues facing our Veterans today, and VA cannot do this work alone,” VA Under Secretary for Health Dr. Shereef Elnahal said in a Monday press statement.
“With the Staff Sergeant Fox Grants and Mission Daybreak, VA seeks to engage not only organizations traditionally focused on suicide prevention, but also to bring in new groups and individuals who may have fresh ideas on how we address this issue.”