While the suicide rate among veterans is still higher than that of the general population, there is hope as laid out in the 2020 National Veteran Suicide Report.
The report details a half-dozen “Anchors of Hope” related to suicide rates among veterans enrolled in health care through the Veterans Health Administration (VHA). While the rest of the veteran population continues to see increases in suicide rates, the adjusted rate for veterans who’ve had recent care through VHA has actually decreased, according to the report.
The signs of improvement and hope are:
Anchor 1: From 2017 to 2018, adjusted suicide rates fell among veterans with recent VHA care. Between 2017 and 2018, the age and sex adjusted rates fell 2.4 percent, while veterans who did not use VHA care rose 2.5 percent.
Anchor 2: Among veterans in VHA care rates fell in those with depression, anxiety and substance use disorders from 2005 to 2018. The most notable decreases came from veterans within VHA who are diagnosed with depression, anxiety and substance use disorders.
Anchor 3: In 2018, suicide rates decreased for specific veteran populations engaged in VHA care. Among the populations seeing decreases in suicide rates, are male Hispanic veterans and women veterans. Additionally, overall suicide rates and trends of increase were lower among African-American veterans than among Caucasian veterans.
Anchor 4: The veteran suicide rate did not increase significantly between 2017 and 2018.
Anchor 5: A coordinated approach appears to be working. There is a groundswell of support for coordinated efforts at the local, regional, and national levels to implement a public health approach to end suicide. One of the anchors helping drive down the suicide rate is the influx of support for coordinated efforts at the local, regional, and national levels in implementing a public health approach to end suicide, according to the report. The President’s Roadmap to Empower Veterans and End a National Tragedy of Suicide (PREVENTS) launched a nationwide effort to raise awareness about mental health and aimed at connecting those at risk of suicide and mental health crises with the necessary resources.
Another piece of legislation aimed at improving the public health approach effort to address suicide among veterans is in New York state. The program, developed in 2012 to provide peer-to-peer support and counseling to veterans and their families, has expanded to 23 counties.
Noting the program’s success in the state, Rep. Lee Zeldin, R-N.Y., introduced legislation to expand it nationally in 2019. The program was created to honor the life of PFC Joseph Dwyer, an Iraq War veteran from Mount Sinai, N.Y. The American Legion endorsed the program upon its introduction. While the bill didn’t move forward during the 116th Congress, Zeldin hopes to reintroduce the bill for the new Congress by the end of the month.
“With this piece of legislation, the socially taxing experience of transitioning into veteran life can be better managed with peer support,” wrote American Legion National Commander James W. "Bill" Oxford in a November 2020 letter addressed to the leadership of the House Veterans Affairs Committee. “Overall, peer support is a well-established pathway to reduce vulnerability to stress and depression by emphasizing strengths and coping resilience to overcome trauma. This is why The American Legion wholeheartedly believes that the passage of this will be beneficial to all veterans.
“One veteran who takes their own life is too many, and we need to do more as a nation to make sure that no veteran feels alone when they return home. Our veterans deserve our unwavering support, and this program is an excellent step in the right direction to make sure our veterans receive the support they need,” Oxford concluded.
If you or someone you know is having thoughts of suicide, contact the Veterans Crisis Line to receive free, confidential support and crisis intervention. Help is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. Call 800-273-8255 and Press 1, text to 838255 or chat online at VeteransCrisisLine.net/Chat.