Suicides of young veterans top those of active-duty troops

9:18 AM, Jan 10, 2014   |    comments
Assistant Secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs Tommy Sowers, left, talks with Brooke Robinson, a recreational therapist at the residential recovery center at the White River Junction, Vt. Medical Center on Dec. 19. Sowers toured the facility to learn about traditional veterans' and programs to treat post traumatic stress.
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(USA TODAY) -- Young veterans just out of the service and receiving health care from the government committed suicide at nearly three times the rate of active-duty troops in recent years, according to new data released Thursday by the Department of Veterans Affairs.

VA officials say the data show that severe personal issues driving self-destructive tendencies for those in uniform follow them when they leave the military. The figures were released through a USA TODAY public records request.

"The rates ... are honestly alarming. This group of young veterans appears to be in some trouble," says Janet Kemp, head of the department's suicide prevention program.

The Army has struggled with suicide among active-duty troops more than other service branches during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the risk persists after soldiers return to civilian life.

Veterans ages 18-24 enrolled in the VA's health program killed themselves at a rate of 46-per 100,000 in 2009 and nearly 80-per-100,000 in 2011, the latest year of data available, according to the figures.

Non-veterans of the same age had a suicide rate during 2009 and 2010, the most recent data available, of about 20-per-100,000, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Thirty-six young veterans receiving some form of VA health care committed suicide in 2009 and 65 died by their own hand two years later. Among those in the broader age group 18-29, the suicide numbers rose from 88 in 2009 to 152 in 2011.

The overall suicide rate for active-duty personnel in the Army, which has struggled with suicide more than other service branches during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, hovered at 22 per 100,000 during 2009-11, according to military figures.

The number of soldier suicides peaked at 185 in 2012 and a record rate for the Army that year of 30 per 100,000.Numbers for 2013 are not yet available.

Kemp says a preliminary analysis shows that most of them were not receiving mental health therapy, but rather had been treated for other health issues by the VA.

"They're young. They've just gotten out of the service," she says. "They're more concentrated on going home, getting jobs, for the most part. They're not coming in for mental health care."

VA epidemiologist Robert Bossarte says a similar pattern was found among veterans in the past.

"There were were several studies after Vietnam that showed increases in suicide and other forms of injury/mortality for about the first five years following return from service," Bossarte says. "Those rates (eventually) came down to be about the same as the rest of the population."

A positive sign in the new data, Kemp says, is that suicide rates for male veterans of all ages who are diagnosed and treated for mental health problems by the VA have fallen steadily from 2001-2011, in contrast to suicide patterns among non-veteran males.

The same is not true, however, for female veterans, whose suicide rates have not improved and remain higher than women who are not veterans, according to the VA data.

Kemp says recent success in reaching veterans through social media offers hope that more young people can be brought into therapy.

Online chat connections with veterans through the VA's suicide prevention office (hotline number is 1-800-273-8255) have increased from several hundred in 2009 to nearly 55,000 last year, VA data shows.

"If we can get them engaged in (mental health) services, we can make a huge difference, and that's encouraging," she says.

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