Suicide among veterans highest in western US, rural areas (Update)

September 15, 2017 by Hope Yen

Suicide among military veterans is especially high in the western U.S. and rural areas, according to new government data that show wide state-by-state disparities and suggest social isolation, gun ownership and access to health care may be factors.

The figures released Friday are the first-ever Department of Veterans Affairs data on suicide by state. It shows Montana, Utah, Nevada and New Mexico had the highest rates of veteran suicide as of 2014, the most current VA data available. Veterans in big chunks of those states must drive 70 miles or more to reach the nearest VA medical center.

The suicide rates in those four states stood at 60 per 100,000 individuals or higher, far above the national veteran suicide rate of 38.4.

The overall rate in the West was 45.5. All other regions of the country had rates below the national rate.

Other states with high veteran suicide rates, including West Virginia, Oklahoma and Kentucky, had greater levels of prescription drug use, including opioids. A VA study last year found veterans who received the highest doses of opioid painkillers were more than twice as likely to die by suicide compared to those receiving the lowest doses.

The latest VA data also reaffirmed sharp demographic differences: Women veterans are at much greater risk, with their suicide rate 2.5 times higher than for female civilians. Among men, the risk was 19 percent higher among veterans compared to civilians. As a whole, older veterans make up most military suicides—roughly 65 percent were age 50 or older.

"This report is huge," said Rajeev Ramchand, an epidemiologist who studies suicide for the RAND Corp. He noted that the suicide rate is higher for veterans than non-veterans in every single state by at least 1.5 times, suggesting unique problems faced by former service members. "No state is immune."

Ramchand said it was hard to pinpoint specific causes behind veteran suicide but likely involved factors more prevalent in rural areas, such as social isolation, limited health care access, gun ownership and opioid addiction. Nationally, 70 percent of the veterans who take their lives had not previously been connected to VA care.

"This requires closer investigation into why suicide rates by veteran status are higher, including the role that opiates play," Ramchand said.

The dataset offers more detailed breakdowns on national figures released last year, which found that 20 veterans a day committed suicide. The numbers come from the largest study undertaken of veterans' records by the VA, part of a government effort to uncover fresh information about where to direct resources and identify veterans most at-risk.

The department has been examining ways to boost suicide prevention efforts.

"These findings are deeply concerning, which is why I made suicide prevention my top clinical priority," said VA Secretary David Shulkin. "This is a national public health issue."

Shulkin, who has worked to provide same-day mental health care at VA medical centers, recently expanded emergency mental care to veterans with other than honorable discharges. The department is also boosting its suicide hotline and expanding telehealth options.

Ret. Army Sgt. Shawn Jones, executive director of Stop Soldier Suicide, said veterans suicide is an issue that needs greater awareness to provide community support for those in need. Transitioning back to civilian life can be difficult for active-duty members who may return home with physical and mental conditions and feel unable to open up to friends or families. As a result, some veterans can feel overwhelmed by daily challenges of finding a job, buying a home and supporting a family.

"It can be tough because the military is a close-knit community and you have that familial feel," Jones said. "As you transition out, you tend to lose that a little bit and feel like an island onto yourself."

The attention on veteran suicide comes at a time when the VA has reported a huge upswing in veterans seeking medical care as they have returned from conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Veterans' groups say the latest data may raise questions about the department's push to expand private-sector care.

"Veterans often have more complex injuries," said Allison Jaslow, executive director of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, citing limitations if civilian doctors don't understand the unique challenges of the veterans' population. If doctors don't ask the right questions to a veteran complaining of back pain, for instance, they may prescribe opioids not realizing the veteran was also suffering PTSD or brain injury after being blown up in a humvee, said Jaslow, a former Army captain.

Expanding private-sector care and stemming veterans' suicide are priorities of President Donald Trump. In a statement this week as part of Suicide Prevention Month, Trump said the U.S. "must do more" to help mentally troubled veterans.

Explore further: VA puts latest estimate of veteran suicides at 20 per day

Related Stories

VA puts latest estimate of veteran suicides at 20 per day

July 7, 2016
On average, 20 veterans a day committed suicide in 2014, a slight decrease from the previous government estimate, but federal health officials are cautious about concluding the suicide problem is getting better.

Suicide rates increasing for both veterans and nonveterans; veterans using VHA services have declining suicide rates

May 4, 2015
Veterans who used services provided by the Veterans Health Administration (VHA) had much lower suicide rates than veterans who did not use those services, according to a new analysis of a decade of suicide data.

Suicide in veterans – study finds mixed picture

May 12, 2017
People who have served in the armed forces do not have a greater risk of suicide overall than people who have never served in the military, but there is an increased risk in certain groups, according to a study by the University ...

House backs bill to lower suicide rate among vets

December 9, 2014
The House has approved a bill aimed at reducing a suicide epidemic that claims the lives of 22 military veterans every day.

US reports spike in suicides among youngest vets

January 10, 2014
There has been a sharp increase in the suicide rate among the youngest U.S. male veterans, and a smaller but still significant jump among women who served in the military, the Department of Veterans Affairs said Thursday.

Drug and alcohol problems linked to increased veteran suicide risk, especially in women

March 16, 2017
Veterans who have drug or alcohol problems are more than twice as likely to die by suicide as their comrades, a new study finds. And women veterans with substance use disorders have an even higher rate of suicide—more than ...

Recommended for you

Classroom friendships may offset effects of punitive parents

November 21, 2018
Angry, threatening and highly critical parenting is more likely to result in children with defiant, noncompliant and revengeful behavior that spills over to adulthood and impacts relationships with all authority figures.

Psychotic experiences could be caused by trauma in childhood

November 21, 2018
Researchers at the University of Bristol have established greater evidence for a causal link between trauma in childhood and psychotic experiences at 18 years old.

Neuroimaging study reveals 'hot spot' for cue-reactivity in substance-dependent population

November 20, 2018
When patients with dependence on alcohol, cocaine or nicotine are shown drug cues, or images related to the substance, an area of their brain known as the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC) shows increased activity, report investigators ...

Being fair: The benefits of early child education

November 20, 2018
Children from low-income families who got intensive education early in life treat others with high levels of fairness in midlife, more than 40 years later, even when being fair comes at a high personal cost, according to ...

Does Netflix's '13 Reasons Why' influence teen suicide? Survey asks at-risk youths

November 20, 2018
A significant proportion of suicidal teens treated in a psychiatric emergency department said that watching the Netflix series "13 Reasons Why" had increased their suicide risk, a University of Michigan study finds.

MDMA makes people cooperative, but not gullible

November 19, 2018
New research from King's College London has found that MDMA, the main ingredient in ecstasy, causes people to cooperate better—but only with trustworthy people. In the first study to look in detail at how MDMA impacts cooperative ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.