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Opinion: Are we underreporting veteran suicides?

A new study reveals that veteran suicides may be higher than federal estimates. Why the discrepancy in reporting?

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An honor guard performs a rifle salute during a Veterans Day ceremony at in West Jordan on Thursday, Nov. 11, 2021.

James Shepphard, commander of Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 7442 and an Army veteran, leads an honor guard in a rifle salute during a Veterans Day ceremony at Veterans Memorial Park in West Jordan on Thursday, Nov. 11, 2021.

Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

If you or someone you are concerned about is at risk, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline by texting or dialing 988, or access the SafeUT, SafeUTNG or SafeUT Frontline apps.

Veteran suicides may be higher than federal estimates, according to a new study done by America’s Warrior Partnership in partnership with the University of Alabama and Duke University. They reviewed census death data from eight states over a five-year period and found thousands of “suspected or confirmed suicides not included in federal calculations.” 

The partnership looked at two numbers. The first is “former service member” suicide. The group found their rates to be 37% higher than the numbers reported by the VA for the years 2014-2018. The VA reports an average of 17 suicides per day while the group found a rate of 24 per day. 

The second number is those who died by “self-injury mortality. The group found an additional 20 former service members dying per day, which combined with the 24 suicides per day end up with 44 per day, more than doubling the VA reported numbers.

Self-injury mortality is a classification which describes people who are “engaging in repetitive, intentional, self-injurious behaviors that they understood markedly increased their chances of dying prematurely,” even if they don’t have an active suicide plan. As researchers Rockett et al. describe it, “drug deaths of persons who were depressed, injecting heroin and drinking alcohol, and who left a suicide note are labeled ‘suicide’. Deaths of persons who were depressed, injecting heroin and drinking alcohol, but left no note typically are labelled ‘accident.’” The partnership found that over 80% of the self-injury mortality deaths in the eight states they studied were coded as overdose deaths. 

State-level data from the VA was recently released, presented as numbers per 100,000. In Utah, the suicide rates for veterans are higher than the national rates for veterans and significantly higher than the general population.

In Utah, the rates for 2020, the most recent year for which data is available, are 49.6 per 100,000, while the general population in Utah is at 26.4. Nationally, the veteran suicide rate is 31.7, while the overall rates are at 17.3. In raw numbers, there were 66 Utah veterans who died by suicide in 2020. Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that over the year, there were 622 overdose deaths in Utah.

Those numbers do not tease out the veterans who died from an overdose, which is the point that America’s Warrior Partnership is trying to make: to better help veterans who are struggling, we need a more complete understanding of the many factors that lead to a veteran dying prematurely. 

Utah is taking a multipronged approach to lowering the rates of veteran suicide. We have a “SafeUTNG” app, designed to support members of the Utah National Guard and their families. Launched in December 2019, it had more than 1,500 downloads in the first two years. Users of the app are connected with a counselor any time of the day or night, 365 days of the year, confidentially and at no charge to them. The national hotline is 988, then press 1 for veteran support. There is veteran specific support at Utah universities as well, including Utah Valley University, the University of Utah, Southern Utah University, Utah State University, Brigham Young University and others. 

Cory Pearson, the Deputy Director of Veterans Services with the state of Utah said that Utah is participating in a nationwide Governor’s Challenge to Prevent Suicide Among Service Members, Veterans and their Families. There are three priority areas for the challenge. The first is to identify service members, veterans and their families residing within the state and providing screening for suicide risk. 

The second priority area is promoting connectedness and improving care transitions. In Utah, efforts are focusing on family members and specifically on the dependent children of service members. The Utah State Board of Education already offers a “purple star” school designation which recognizes schools that “go the extra mile to provide smooth transitions for military families.”

At the beginning of September, the Utah Department of Veterans and Military Affairs piloted a two-hour training in Davis County to help school faculty and staff understand how kids of military families might be affected. That training was followed by another two-hour training specifically addressing suicide prevention.

The third priority in the Governor’s Challenge is to increase “lethal means” safety and safety planning. “Lethal means” refers to objects that can be used during a suicidal crisis and can become deadly, especially if they are easily accessible. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs notes that “increasing the time and distance between someone in a suicidal crisis and access to lethal means can reduce suicide risk and save lives.” Making it more difficult to access lethal means through gun locks, storing guns and ammunition in separate locations, removing potentially lethal medications from the home and other steps to keep people safe during a suicidal crisis can reduce the number of suicides. 

Individuals can play a role in decreasing suicides as well by being willing to ask direct questions “I’m worried about you. Are you thinking of hurting yourself or committing suicide?” Asking about suicide will not give a veteran the idea or increase their risk. In addition to the apps mentioned above, Utah has a website dedicated to suicide prevention. LiveOnUtah.org is “a statewide effort to prevent suicide by promoting education, providing resources, and changing our culture around suicide and mental health.” While not specifically about veterans suicide, it provides many useful resources.

Every suicide is one suicide too many. Whether the rate of veteran suicides is 17 per day or 44 per day or some other number, we all need to do what we can to help reduce the rate. 

Dr. Holly Richardson is the editor of Utah Policy