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Report: Veterans suicides may be underestimated

Feb. 1, 2013 - 10:57AM   |   Last Updated: Feb. 1, 2013 - 10:57AM  |  
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Veterans make up 22.2 percent of all suicides in the U.S., and that startling figure might actually be an underestimate because of difficulty in determining veterans' status, according to a new report.

The total is roughly 18 to 22 veteran suicides per day.

Two-thirds of veterans who commit suicide are age 50 or older, according to the report on suicide prevention and mental health services released Friday by the Veterans Affairs Department. Twenty percent are under age 40, and just 3 percent are under 30.

Based on a review of deaths in the U.S. since 2009, the report says the suicide rate for young and unmarried veterans could be under-reported, especially for females, because death certificates might not note veteran status.

VA officials, who have dramatically expanded mental health and suicide prevention programs since 2007, are focusing on when people are most at risk and what kind of treatment, if any, they were receiving for depression or other mental issues.

The report shows that beginning in 2012 there was a slight decrease in suicide attempts by veterans who were receiving treatment from VA hospitals and clinics. In a response to the report, VA officials are taking this as a sign their enhanced treatment efforts for veterans at high risk of suicide is working.

In a statement, VA officials said preliminary evidence suggests VA programs are reducing suicides, but victory is not being declared just yet.

"VA must continue to provide a high level of care and recognize that there is still much more work to do," the statement says. "As long as veterans die by suicide, we must continue to improve and provide even better services and care."

Some changes will come as a result of the report, VA officials said. For example, they will be looking for ways to target help for Vietnam veterans and women veterans, groups that are a risk of suicide attempts, according to the report.

Among the other findings:

The average age of veterans who die of suicide is just short of 60; for nonveterans, it's 43.

Female veterans who commit suicide generally do so at younger ages than males. Two-thirds of women who killed themselves were under 50 years of age; one-third were under 40 and 13 percent were under 30. For men, the comparable figures were 30 percent, 15 percent and 6 percent.

About 15 percent of veterans who attempt suicide but don't succeed try again within 12 months.

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