Suicides and suicide attempts among veterans declined during the first few months of the COVID-19 pandemic, as did emergency room visits at Department of Veterans Affairs hospitals for suicide-related injuries, according to a new report from the VA.
An early analysis of suicides and suicide attempts among patients enrolled in the Veterans Health System since the outbreak began in March found no increases in veteran suicides and non-fatal attempts across the VA system, and fewer attempts or deaths at VA hospital campuses.
VA officials cautioned, however, that it is too early to tell how the closure of VA clinics and hospitals, as well as restrictions on medical services during the pandemic, play into the findings.
"These trends offer timely, although incomplete information," VA analysts wrote in the department's annual suicide prevention report.
According to the report, about 30 fewer veterans died by suicide in the five months after the start of the pandemic, compared with the same time frame before the outbreak.
Known suicide attempts dropped sharply. They had fluctuated between 300 and nearly 600 each week before the pandemic, but numbered between 230 and 340 each week after.
On-campus suicide attempts also dropped sharply in the early weeks of the pandemic, but they rose in July. However, the number was still small, with 24 attempts that month.
Recorded suicides at VA facilities in April were zero, but that number has slowly increased over time: In September, four people died by suicide on VA campuses, according to the report.
The VA instituted a number of specific COVID-related mental health programs early in the pandemic, including launching a mobile application that provides coronavirus information and updates. It has conducted more than 2 million remote mental health appointments for 500,000 veterans.
It also has conducted group psychotherapy via videoconferencing for hundreds of groups across the VA system.
In the report, VA officials said they would continue to monitor the impact of COVID-19 on the mental health of veterans, especially as it relates to suicide and suicide attempts.
U.S. public health officials remain concerned over a rising mental health crisis posed by the pandemic. Calls to crisis lines have increased, and the number of opioid-related deaths has risen in 40 states since March, according to the American Medical Association.
The Associated Press reported that suicides in the U.S. Army have risen this year by as much as 30%, while the Air Force has reported that suicides among active-duty personnel remain at the same levels as last year, which set a record for the service.
The VA has treated 85,638 patients for COVID-19 since the outbreak began. Nearly 4,300 veterans have died.
The department has experienced a surge in illnesses since late September, with active cases rising from 2,899 on Sept. 23 to 8,968 as of Thursday. Current hot spots within the VA system include Aurora, Colorado; Cleveland, Ohio; Milwaukee, Wisconsin; and Minneapolis, each handling more than 200 active cases.
According to the VA report, the number of suicides among U.S. veterans has risen since 2005 but remained relatively flat from 2017 to 2018. The average was 17.6 veterans dying by suicide each day in 2018; in 2017, the average was 17.5.
The Veterans Crisis Line is staffed 24 hours a day, seven days a week, at 800-273-8255, press 1. Services also are available online at www.veteranscrisisline.net or by text, 838255.