More must be done to fight the rate of suicide among veterans, Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki, said Friday. He is shown here in his office Nov. 8, 2010. / H. Darr Beiser, USA TODAY
An estimated 22 veterans commit suicide in the United States every day, a slightly higher number than the 18-per-day rate the Department of Veterans Affairs had indicated in years past, according to a VA study made public today.
"We have more work to do," VA Secretary Eric Shinseki said in a statement released Friday. "We will use this data to continue to strengthen our suicide prevention efforts and ensure all veterans receive the care they have earned and deserve."
The chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee called the pace of veterans suicides unacceptable. "What we're seeing is an extraordinary tragedy which speaks to the horror of war and the need for us to do a much better job of assisting our soldiers and their families after they return home," says Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.
Rep. Jeff Miller (R-Fla.), chairman of the House VA Committee, said he is holding a hearing Feb. 13 to find out "if the VA's complex system of mental health and suicide prevention services (is) improving the health and wellness of our heroes in need."
Researchers found that the average age of a veteran who commits suicide is about 60. Analysts concluded that Vietnam and female veterans need particular focus.They also determined that a very intense period of risk for suicide is the first four weeks after someone leaves the military, and that this period requires strong monitoring and case management.
The analysis found that the actual number of estimated suicides per day among veterans has remained relatively stable, ranging from 20 per day in 2000 to 18 per day in 2007 and 22 per day in 2009 and 2010, the latest estimates available, according to a report on the study released Friday. The rate of suicide among veterans who use VA health care services has remained steady in recent years, at about 36 per 100,000.
The most common means of committing suicide by veterans - in half of the deaths - is drug overdose or poisoning, according to the VA study.
The department says it has responded to the findings by creating a task force "to provide recommendations for innovative mental health care." It has also increased staff for the VA crisis hotline, which the department says has been instrumental in 26,000 rescues. The VA has also is expanding its mental health staff by 1,600 clinicians and is training 800 peer-to-peer specialists to work with other veterans.
The new analysis of veteran suicides was possible because of a nearly 20-month effort to obtain suicide data on veterans from each state. At least 34 states have cooperated and another eight are in the process of doing so. The final analysis released Friday was based upon only a partial completion of data received from 21 states, the VA says.
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