The number of veterans suicides in America fell to less than 17 a day in 2020, a positive sign that efforts to provide additional mental health care and support service to veterans may be saving lives, Veterans Affairs officials said Monday.
That’s a decrease of 9.7% (650 fewer cases) since 2018, nearly double the drop seen in the suicide rate among the general population over that time span (5.5%).
In a statement, VA Secretary Denis McDonough expressed tempered optimism over the findings.
“This year’s report shows real progress, but there is still so much work to be done,” he said. “One veteran suicide is one too many, and VA will continue to work with our federal, state, local and private partners to tackle this problem and save veterans’ lives.”
About 16.8 veterans a day died by suicide in 2020, the first time that calculation has fallen below 17 a day since 2006. The figure has risen to as high as 18 a day in recent years.
When active-duty and reserve suicides are included in the totals, the estimate is about 20 suicides a day, a figure widely quoted in the military and veterans communities.
Despite the positive news, however, veterans remain more likely to die by suicide than Americans who never served in the military. The suicide rate among veterans is roughly 31.7 deaths per 100,000 veterans, almost double that of non-veterans (16.1 per 100,000).
Suicide was the second leading cause of death among veterans 45 years of age and younger in 2020, behind only accidents.
The improvements in the suicide rate coincide with the final two years of President Donald Trump’s term in office. But VA officials cautioned against attributing the changes to any single program or initiative, saying the causes — and solutions — to suicide are complex.
“Improvement involves addressing suicide prevention, incorporating consideration of multiple risk factors and predictive factors, and building evidence-based clinical interventions as well as community-based interventions,” said Dr. Matt Miller, VA’s director of suicide prevention.
“I see [in this report] that the VA, in collaboration with the community and other federal agencies, is making a difference.”
The report also found no real change in suicide rates because of the Covid-19 pandemic, which began in spring 2020. That had been a concern among mental health specialists, who feared increased isolation and stress as a result of the pandemic response effort could trigger suicidal thoughts among vulnerable veterans.
The VA findings come just two days after officials from America’s Warrior Partnership, in a joint study with University of Alabama and Duke University, released their own study suggesting that the official suicide numbers from state census data may be dramatically undercounting veterans deaths.
If the numbers were to include additional deaths from accidental drug overdoses and deceased individuals whose veteran status was reported inaccurately, the figure could be as high as 44 veteran deaths by suicide a day, AWP officials said.
As part of the VA report release Monday, department officials also announced $52 million in community-based suicide prevention grants to 80 organizations in 43 states, and another $8.5 million in awards as part of their Mission Daybreak suicide prevention challenge.
Veterans in need of emergency counseling can reach the Veterans Crisis line by dialing 988 or 1-800-273-8255 and selecting option 1 after connecting to reach a VA staffer. In addition, veterans, troops or their family members can also text 838255 or visit VeteransCrisisLine.net for assistance.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.