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Veteran suicide rate rises, but is lower for those who recently accessed care

Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie, testifies before a House Appropriations Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC in May. Pool Photo by Anna Moneymaker/UPI
Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie, testifies before a House Appropriations Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC in May. Pool Photo by Anna Moneymaker/UPI | License Photo

Nov. 12 (UPI) -- Veterans who received recent care from the Department of Veterans Affairs were less likely to die by suicide, according to a new report from the VA, which also said the rate of veteran suicides appears not to have been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.

According to the report, which was published Thursday, the number of suicides among U.S. military veterans increased between 2017 and 2018, but only slightly -- an average of 17.6 veterans died by suicide every day in 2018, versus 17.5 per day the year before.

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"The suicide data presented in this new report is an integral part of VA's Public Health Model for Suicide Prevention, which combines evidence-based clinical interventions and proactive community-based prevention strategies to address suicide in our nation," VA Secretary Robert Wilkie said in a press release.

"The data shows the rate of suicide among Veterans who recently used VA health services has decreased, an encouraging sign as the department continues its work and shares what we learn with those who care for and about Veterans."

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The report analyzed data on veteran suicides between the years of 2005 and 2018, but the VA is also monitoring the effect of the COVID-19 pandemic on veterans' mental health.

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So far, the department has not found an overall increase in suicides or attempts among veterans in 2020, the report said.

But some populations -- particularly Black and Latino veterans -- were more likely to report suicidal ideation.

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And the VA found an increase in risk factors for suicide due to the pandemic, including social isolation and unemployment.

The department has responded by increasing suicide prevention outreach efforts to veterans who test positive for the virus, and by stepping up more broad-based means of suicide prevention.

That includes educating providers and veterans about the Veterans Suicide Crisis Line and about what the VA is calling "lethal means safety."

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According to suicide prevention experts, access to lethal means -- such as firearms and medications -- is a major risk factor for suicides.

The National Institute for Mental Health reports that in 2018, 55.9% of suicides among men in the general population involved firearms, with 31.5% of suicides among women involved guns.

Among veterans, the rate of gun-related suicides was higher among both men and women in 2018, with 69.4% of male veterans using firearms to end their lives and 41.9% of female veterans doing the same.

In response, the VA is providing education to providers about safe storage of firearms and medications, and encouraging them to talk to their patients.

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