Many Americans have heard by now that 20 veterans commit suicide each day. Presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump cited the figure at last week’s Commander-in-Chief Forum viewed by 14.7 million people, further raising the issue’s visibility.
But a 46-page suicide analysis released by the Department of Veterans Affairs last month reveals just how swift this current of self-destruction is flowing, particularly for young veterans fresh from war. It’s a pace of killing unknown to most Americans and a source of national shame.
A veteran is choosing death every 72 minutes, and the VA could be doing more to keep that person alive. When veterans manage to ask for help, too many of their calls are not getting through to VA’s suicide hotline (800-273-8255). The agency isn’t offering enough veterans the kind of cutting-edge treatment therapies that researchers are finally uncovering.
The statistics tell the tragic story. Veterans in 2014 were killing themselves at three times the rate of civilians and at a quickening pace, up by a third from 2001 to 2014. Most self-destructive are young male veterans in their 20s, who are dying at four times the rate of their civilian peers. Female veterans were 2.4 times more likely to choose suicide than civilian counterparts.
In one narrow category — 18- to 24-year-old male veterans who served in Iraq or Afghanistan and were VA patients — the suicide rate was 10 times the national average for all people.
The dying is relentless. Iraq War veteran Tom Young, 30, lay down on Illinois train tracks last year after failing to reach someone at the VA hotline. Former police officer and Navy veteran Peter Kaisen, 76, shot himself in the parking lot of a veterans hospital on Long Island last month.
Young died at a time when some calls into the VA hotline were actually going tovoicemail, a problem since repaired. But too many calls today still roll over to less-prepared backup centers outside the VA.
The agency’s mammoth bureaucracy, second only to the Pentagon, has been slow to embrace new ideas, chief among them managing the urge to commit suicide and not just treating underlying illnesses such as post-traumatic stress disorder or severe depression.
When this kind of skills training is tailored to the individual veteran, it can be extremely effective in reducing suicide, according to Craig Bryan, head of the National Center for Veterans Studies at the University of Utah, and other scientists. The VA needs to move faster on this science, and on fresher ideas such as behavioral health clinics devoted to managing coping skills, much like dialysis centers manage kidney disease.
To be sure, the issue is complex, and VA has made progress: expanding mental health care staffing; developing computer algorithms to single out hardcore suicidal cases for special care; and pushing private doctors to query veterans about the emotional impact of their military service.
Of 20 veteran suicides daily, just six were enrolled in VA health care. The others either chose against going to the VA or were ineligible for its care.
Easy access to guns is another part of the problem. Two-thirds of male veterans who commit suicide use a firearm, compared with 52% of male civilians.
The answers to veteran suicides are “not meeting the demand,” says Paul Rieckhoff, founder and CEO of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. “We often compare it to the early days of the AIDS crisis, when the gay community especially felt like their friends were dying left and right, and people weren’t paying attention.”
Attention must be paid, by the presidential candidates and everyone else.