As part of an upcoming series that the Rhino Den is doing I've been doing a lot of research in the area of suicides in the veteran community. Before I get to the actual statistics I really need to take a moment to thank Senator Bernie Sanders' (I-VT) office (specifically Emily Rampone) for the assistance. His office was the only legislative office to respond in more than a general "leave a message for our media director." I also have to thank the news desk of the Washington Post for being surprisingly helpful, and one of their reporters, David Finkel who I have gotten to know over the years. The folks at Business Insider were also willing to help me in this novice fumbling, though they could do little more than point me at organizations that might have contacts. I also have to point out Ami Neiberger-Miller, from TAPS.org for the truly exceptional work she does, as well as the passion she brings to the issue.
I still have yet to get any response from the VA, and the response from the DoD was mostly pointing me to official press releases but they have promised to put me in touch with the head of the suicide prevention program, which I'm genuinely looking forward to interviewing.
Now that I've said all that I need to point out something truly disturbing about the VA. Wanna know what that is? They actually have no idea just how many suicides are actually happening in the veteran community. The best guess based on data from 2 years ago (FY 2010) and has a variance of +/- 2 suicides a day with the presumptive rate being 22. The data is pretty sketchy because there are a lot of people they're not sure if they're veterans or not, and there are a lot of states whose information was not made available to the VA.
One important thing to take away from a lot of the gobilty gook is that not all, or even most of those 22 suicides a day are from Iraq and Afghanistan veterans. A majority are actually coming from Vietnam and Korea veterans (the WWII veterans have been dying of old age at a rate of roughly a thousand a day for years, so there are fewer and fewer of them to commit suicide). Despite this, the truth is that there are a painfully high number of veterans that are taking that final solution. Worse the trending of the data suggests the rate is increasing. If the rates were to suddenly drop again it would beg the question is it because the measures to prevent suicide are actually working, or are there just fewer veterans?
For the time being, the VA is in the process of transferring to a paperless system, and that might potentially increase the accuracy of the reporting. Unfortunately this is slow going. Worse still it seems that the DoD and the VA somehow got contracts for completely different systems that do not have the ability to talk to each other at all. Add to that the the VA is dependent on the states to tell them if the suicides they have were veterans or not which means there may be a lot of unreported suicides.
Unfortunately this only deepens the need to talk to a representative from the VA. There is only anecdotal numbers given. If I say 22 veterans kill themselves a day that's going to produce a knee jerk reaction. To be sure the backlog at the VA isn't helping, and there have been recorded cases of former service members killing themselves while waiting for the VA to enter them into treatment. But is that the norm or the exception? Are the suicides depression related, financial, or is there some other medical reason we may not know or understand?
There have also been accounts of veterans arrested, their guns confiscated and their property stolen as they are forced into psychiatric in patient programs against their will because of things said to the hotline. It will take only one or two serious accounts of such a thing happening before the emergency hotline is viewed as the same kind of poison that going to mental health or not lying on the Post Deployment Health Reassessment (PDHRA) while on active duty. Even rumors of some of the repercussions that can face a soldier or veteran if they admit to suicidal ideation can poison the well so to speak and may lead to many treatment options going unused.
What the statistics in the report don't say is one one of the most fundamental questions plaguing those left behind; why? Why do they feel they had to kill themselves. Was it depression, anger, hopelessness? We're trying to fight this alarming rise in trends among the Active Guard and Reserve forces as well as the veterans, but we can't even really begin to do this until we have an accurate picture of what is actually going on. As much as I truly want to start working on my piece, I can't until I get to talk to someone in the Veterans Administration that can give me a clearer picture. As passionate as I and many others are on the subject we can not rely on anecdotes, rumors, and conclusions based on what we think is happening. We have to take the utmost care with this issue. In our haste to solve this problem we may actually exacerbate it. This is the one issue that we can not get wrong.