By Kim Forsythe, MSW Candidate 2017
USC School of Social Work
What is really going on with the veteran suicide rate? That is the problem right there… no one really knows.
In 2007 the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) proclaimed their primary focus as reducing the number of veteran suicides. The VA announced this focus after eight years of the veteran suicide rate lingering around 16-20 a day. In 2012 the VA released a pitiful excuse of a demographic statistical report of information concerning veteran suicide with only partial information for approximately 20 states and no U.S. territories. The 2012 VA report, although not having complete data, still disclosed that an estimated 22 veterans a day commit suicide. This grotesque figure has reverberated through the nation over the last four years and has been a hard pill to swallow. 22 veterans a day adds up to more veterans dying by suicide annually than the total number of service members killed in action since the inception of the Global War on Terrorism. We owe these brave men and women “who at one point wrote a blank check made payable to the United States of America, for an amount up to and including their life” more.
In July 2016, the VA released an updated statistical report of demographics from veteran suicides from 2001 to 2014. This report examined over 50 million veteran records from all 50 states and four U.S. territories. The report revealed in 2014 an average of 20 veterans die by suicide daily. Seven years of the VA’s primary focus being to reduce the number of veteran suicides only reduced the daily average by two veterans. To make matters worse, in this time the VA has repeatedly stated they have been aggressively improving and expanding their mental health services to serve all veterans, even those not enrolled in or eligible for VA health care, to prevent suicide.
The only way to defeat an enemy is to understand the enemy. Suicide is the enemy we are facing. We need to understand more than just demographic information about these veterans as the demographics gives us no tangible answers. In-depth research is required to combat this epidemic. H.R. 4640, The Veterans Suicide Prevention Act, is a beginning to the research that is necessary to beat this enemy. This legislation directs the Secretary of the Department of the Veteran Affairs to conduct a review of veteran deaths by suicide in the preceding five years before enactment. The bill’s main effort is to find a possible link between psychotropic medication and suicide. However, it also searches for common traumas documented, i.e., combat, military sexual trauma, traumatic brain injury, and posttraumatic stress disorders, as well as any other patterns visible at individual Veteran Health Administration facilities.
While I do not doubt that expansions and improvements were necessary at Veteran Health Administration facilities, it has not made a dent in solving the problem. Now is the time to take another approach and not just look at demographic information. It is time to determine a why. Veterans have proudly and bravely served this nation, protecting the people’s rights and freedom. It is a shame that these battle-tested men and women go overseas to fight this nation’s battles, come home, separate from the military and then lose the fight to suicide. Now it is the nation’s turn to support our veterans. Let’s work to find the “why.” The Veteran Suicide Prevention Act should only be the beginning of the research. Continuing to investigate possible reasons why a veteran commits suicide is imperative. Finding the why to the answer may be the key to unlocking this mystery.