Federal, state and private groups gathered recently in Columbia for a health summit to fight suicide among military veterans. We hope such cooperative efforts expand the capability of mental health organizations to provide help for this growing problem.
The daylong conference brought together medical, military, government and private experts and specialists to find ways to improve cooperation on mental health and anti-suicide efforts. The gathering included briefings on the work being done by various groups and discussions about forging partnerships to help veterans.
Many veterans have little trouble re-entering life in their communities and resuming the lifestyle patterns they led before going to war. But thousands of others, for a variety of reasons, can’t make the adjustment. And in many cases, physical injuries, particularly concussions and brain injuries, contribute to problems that fall under the broad category of post-traumatic stress syndrome, or PTSD.
VA officials estimate that about 20 military veterans commit suicide every day across the country. But many experts believe that, as high as that number seems, it may be too conservative.
A variety of issues make it difficult to calculate the suicide rate among veterans. For example, many states, including states such as Texas and California with large veteran populations, don’t supply data on veteran suicides to the government.
In addition, the reporting of veteran suicides can be irregular. VA statisticians often must rely on coroner’s reports, and coroners might be unaware that the deceased was a veteran or that suicide was the cause of death.
Families also often ask coroners not to report suicide as the cause because of the stigma of mental illness. And sometimes, as when the cause of death is an accident or drug overdose and no note is left, suicide may not be apparent.
But even with incomplete data, the VA reports that the annual suicide rate among veterans is 30 per 100,000 compared to the civilian rate of 14 per 100,000. Sadly, the rate among veterans has risen steadily in recent years.
And the problem is by no means isolated to recently returning veterans. Many veteran suicides occur among those 50 and older, including a large segment of Vietnam veterans who might have been dealing with their inner demons for decades.
The South Carolina summit of care providers was organized after the Obama administration announced a plan last year to help veterans deal with brain injuries and to reduce suicides by holding such conferences. And In August, the president announced $107 million in new funding to improve mental health treatment for veterans.
Efforts such as this summit, to bring together caregivers and coordinate outreach and treatment options, are crucial to confronting this serious problem. But more clearly needs to be done nationwide to stem a growing tide of veteran suicides.
These veterans served their country. Now it’s time for their country to help them.