Suicide rates lower for vets in VA care
The department says government data suggest its mental health programs are saving lives.
Military veterans who receive healthcare through the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs commit suicide at lower rates than those outside the system, according to government data.
VA researchers said the data suggested the agency’s suicide prevention programs were working — at least for veterans who use them — though they acknowledged that the lower rates may also ref lect an underlying willingness to seek help.
The differences were especially stark among women, whose overall suicide rates are only now becoming clear.
The Times reported this week that female veterans committed suicide at nearly six times the rate of other women, based on a government analysis of all 173,969 adult suicides — men and women, veterans and nonveterans — in 23 states from 2000 to 2010.
Age group breakdowns provided to The Times showed that the rates were elevated across all generations of women who served. In contrast, the rates for men were elevated only for those younger than 50.
To counter criticism that it is not doing enough to stop suicide, the VA is trying to draw attention to one bright spot in the data: lower suicide rates for veterans enrolled in healthcare there.
“I think it’s important to understand that the enhanced care that we provide at VA is making a difference,” Caitlin Thompson, the agency’s deputy director for suicide prevention, said in an article posted Tuesday evening on the VA blog.
Suicide rates are typically expressed in the number of deaths per 100,000 people each year. For female veterans using the VA, that number held relatively steady over the 11 years included in the data, averaging 10.3.
The figure for females who didn’t seek VA help started out at 29.9 in 2000 and climbed steadily, reaching 43.6 in 2010.
For male VA users, it fell from 37.3 to 29.1.
In contrast, it rose from 27.5 to 38.3 for male nonusers.
Robert Bossarte, a VA epidemiologist who was part of the research team, said that given the rising rates among non-VA users — as well as an uptick in suicide rates in the general population — flat rates for VA users suggested that mental health treatment was working.
Still, he and other researchers said that without more research, the causes of the differences cannot be known for certain.
The VA saw a large influx of new patients over the course of the study, and it is unclear how that changed underlying risk patterns.
In addition, researchers are unable to demonstrate a clear effect of the VA efforts that began in 2007 to ramp up suicide prevention programs. Most of the improvement in suicide rates among male VA users occurred before then.