Rising Suicide Rates Among Younger Veterans Trigger Alarm Bells at VA

(Navy Photo)
(Navy Photo)

Suicide rates among veterans 34 and younger have spiked in the last two years, leading the Department of Veterans Affairs to focus more on the 18-to-34-year-old age group than civilian programs for suicide prevention do, a top VA official said Tuesday.

The number of suicides by veterans of all generations averages 22 each day. But "when we break down the numbers, the national numbers for veterans suicides, we're seeing an increased rate within 18-to-34-year-olds," said Dr. Keita Franklin, the VA's national director of suicide prevention.

"My civilian counterparts often focus on men over the age of 55," Franklin said, "but for me in the VA and my partners on the [Defense Department] side, the 18-to-34-year-old rate has increased by 10 percent over the last two years -- five percent each year over the last two years."

Franklin was citing 2016 statistics in the VA's National Suicide Data Report, released in September. The report stated that the suicide rate for young veterans increased to 45 deaths per 100,000 population in 2016, up from 40.4 in 2015 and about 35 in 2014.

She said another factor that has emerged in analyzing recent statistics has been the suicide rate among National Guard and Reserve veterans who never deployed to a combat zone.

Nearly four of the 20 veteran suicides a day were among National Guard and Reserve members who may have experienced trauma in national disaster duty, but were never in a combat zone, she added.

Franklin, who previously served as the Pentagon's Defense Suicide Prevention Office director, also noted that her civilian counterparts in suicide prevention are not facing the same rates of female suicides. "The fact that the female [veteran] rate is 1.8 times higher than their non-veteran counterpart is something we're concerned about."

She said the data show that "females attempt [suicide] more with less lethal means, such as medication, and males complete more. We are focusing on the increased rate for female veterans, which is also not something my civilian counterparts are often dealing with."

Franklin, a licensed clinical social worker, made the statements in a panel discussion, hosted by the Brookings Institution at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, on the Wounded Warrior Project's annual survey of post-9/11 veterans issues. She also gave an interview to Military.com after the panel.

At the VA, former Secretary Dr. David Shulkin and current Secretary Robert Wilkie have made suicide prevention the top priority, but the department doesn’t "have an answer" as yet to explain the increase in suicides among younger veterans, Franklin said.

She said her initial thoughts are that problems for younger veterans may stem from the transition process from the military to civilian life. "Transition is so important," she said. "We think it has something to do with making sure we're transitioning them well, or perhaps there's more we can do to prepare them for a successful transition."

Following the panel discussion on the Wounded Warrior Project (WWP) survey, retired Army Lt. Gen. Mike Linnington, chief executive officer of WWP, said he shares Franklin's concern about the increased suicide rates among younger veterans.

In the past, he said, Wounded Warrior Project directed its fundraising efforts mostly toward education and employment for veterans, but "we've had to make an internal decision on where we put our money" based on the new data.

"That's why we're doing more in the mental health area," Linnington said, pointing to a WWP pledge announced last month to raise $160 million in the next five years to help four institutions implement two-and-three-week courses of intensive treatment for veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress (PTSD) and traumatic brain injury.

As planned, the WWP's Warrior Care Network would distribute about $65 million to the Home Base program at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston; $45 million to the Road Home program at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago; $25 million to veterans programs at Emory Healthcare in Atlanta; and $20 million to Operation Mend at UCLA Health in Los Angeles. The other $5 million will go to other projects, an official said.

In June, the VA's last comprehensive report on veterans suicides concluded that vets are twice as likely as civilians to die by suicide. Although veterans make up about 8 percent of the total population, they account for 14 percent of the suicides, the VA report said.

The report was based on 2015 data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's National Death Index, which was the last complete set of statistics available to the VA.

"After adjusting for differences in age, the rate of suicide in 2015 was 2.1 times higher among veterans compared with non-veteran adults," the report said.

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.

Story Continues