Vet Suicides Underestimated, Skewed by State Data


A just-released Department of Veterans Affairs analysis of suicide among veterans indicates that the number of vets taking their own lives may be higher than the VA has previously estimated, and this may be particularly true among women vets.

According to the 59-page "Suicide Data Report, 2012," suicide statistics utilizing veteran data gleaned from state death certificates may prove too unreliable

That means the number of vets that officials believe have been killing themselves every day over the past dozen years is likely higher than the 18-to-22 they have estimated. A glaring flaw in the numbers is that state death certificates, used as an identifier when compiling suicide stats for veterans, are less accurate in noting the veteran status of women, younger and unmarried vets and those with lower education levels.

"The ability of death certificates to fully capture female Veterans was particularly low; only 67 percent of true female Veterans were identified," the report states. "Younger or unmarried Veterans and those with lower levels of education were also more likely to be missed on the death certificate."

The findings demonstrate the value of linking information from state death records to VA and DoD records through data sharing agreements, the report states.

The report assessed the reliability of data from state death certificates when compared to Department of Veterans Affairs and Department of Defense records. Overall, it found that there was an acceptable 5 percent misclassification of veteran's status.

These holes in the data when it came to the subgroups within the veteran community results in underreporting the problem, which hurts suicide surveillance and research efforts, the report states.

According to the report the VA is able to draw on suicide mortality data from 21 states. Veteran status is determined by a single question that asks about military service, with the information supplied by family members by funeral home staff. It is not validated by VA or DoD sources.

The report also says that veteran's status was not collected by the states in each of the years analysts reviewed.

"From a surveillance standpoint, the rate of Veteran suicides will be underestimated in these groups," it said. "From a research standpoint, the [general usefulness] of study findings for specific subgroups may be limited."

Suicide surveillance involves accumulating and reviewing all available data necessary for reporting and tracking a suicide. The Defense Department Suicide Event Report is a uniform program for collecting such data across the services.

The report also found that while the percentage of all suicides reported as veterans decreased, the number of suicides has increased. But it also states there is preliminary evidence in 2012 to indicate a decrease in the rate of non-fatal suicide events among vets using VA healthcare.

Other findings include:

A majority of veteran who commit suicide are 50 years and older, with male vets who die by suicide older than non-veteran men who kill themselves. For that reason the VA officials say they will beef up programs aimed at Vietnam and Vietnam-era veterans.

The age distribution of veteran and non-veteran women who die by suicide is similar.

Among veterans at risk of committing suicide, the first four weeks after separating from the military require intensive monitoring and case management.

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Mental Health and Wellness