New Estimate: 22 U.S. Veterans Commit Suicide Daily

The Slatest
Your News Companion by Ben Mathis-Lilley
Feb. 1 2013 3:09 PM

Roughly 22 U.S. Veterans Kill Themselves Daily, According to a New Study

A man pauses between rows of headstones in Section 60, where most casualties of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are buried at Arlington National Cemetery.
A man pauses between rows of headstones in Section 60, where most casualties of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Roughly 22 veterans commit suicide each day. That's according to a two-year study released today by the Department of Veterans' Affairs.

That tally is about 20 percent higher than a previous, much-cited 2007 VA estimate of daily suicides by veterans. The more comprehensive study also contains a couple of other surprising findings: As the Washington Post noted, nearly two-thirds of veterans who kill themselves are over 50 years old, indicating that time served in Afghanistan and Iraq in the past decade doesn't fully explain the increase in number of veteran suicides since 1999. And, while that total number has increased, the percentage of veteran deaths by suicide has gone down slightly.

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The data is based off of death certificates from 21 states, collected by VA epidemiologist Robert Bossarte over a period of two years. The study notes a couple of its own major limitations, including the fact that 23 percent of death certificates collected didn't have an indication of veteran status on them, and therefore weren't included in the database.

The Post interviewed Bossarte about his findings, and the whole thing is worth a read. He explains that the database, when complete, will allow the VA to track the effectiveness of suicide prevention efforts for veterans. One surprising trend spotted in the data by Bossarte: the name change of a VA hotline from "suicide hotline" to "crisis line" resulted in an increase of calls to the service overall, with a smaller percentage of those calls requiring an "emergency rescue." In other words, "We are getting them earlier," Bossarte said.

Despite the average age of veteran suicides skewing older, Bossarte also noted previous studies that found risk for suicide is highest for veterans in the five years after leaving the service. Because, as Bossarte's nearly one-man show might indicate, the VA hasn't exactly received very much praise for its less-than-comprehensive tracking of and work on veterans suicides in the past, there's still a lot to work through on how exactly the combat of the last decade is and will affect suicide rates going forward.

Abby Ohlheiser is a Slate contributor.