Sui­cide rates lower for vets in VA care

The depart­ment says gov­ern­ment data sug­gest its men­tal health pro­grams are sav­ing lives.

Los Angeles Times - - THE NATION - By Alan Zarembo alan.zarembo@la­times.com Twit­ter: @AlanZarembo

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.

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