NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The disturbing number has held steady for years: Roughly 20 U.S. military veterans take their own lives each day.
The Defense Department reported a significant uptick last year in the number of active-duty and reserve men and women who died by suicide. The suicide rate among veterans ages 18 to 34, some of whom served in Iraq and Afghanistan, shot up dramatically from 2015 to 2016, data show.
Top officials from the Pentagon and the Department of Veterans Affairs, joined by specialists from across the private sector, gathered this week to search for solutions to what has become one of the most persistent, painful and frustrating crises facing the military community. Although the nation has grappled with veteran suicides for more than a century — officials note that some of the first academic research on the issue appeared in 1915 — many of the core challenges remain.
Trump administration officials say a key factor is a reservation about addressing mental health care.
“There’s been a stigma throughout the history of our country that I still think you see manifestations of today,” VA Secretary Robert Wilkie told The Washington Times in an exclusive interview on the sidelines of the conference, a biannual gathering co-hosted by the VA and the Pentagon.
“In the military, there’s always been a reluctance to address those issues,” he said. “But with many issues, certainly complicated ones, just starting to talk about it is a step forward. People would run from this label, mental illness. Families would panic, communities would panic.
“It’s amazing to me that we’re not any farther along,” he added.
Beneath the startling figures on veteran suicides is an especially troubling number: Of the 20 who die by suicide each day, roughly two-thirds have had little or no regular contact with the VA. That suggests an unwillingness to seek help or a lack of knowledge about where to look.
In other cases, VA facilities have become the sites of tragedy. Earlier this year, three veterans died by suicide at VA facilities over the span of just five days.
Two took their lives in the parking lots outside VA buildings; a third reportedly shot himself in the waiting room of a Texas VA clinic in front of hundreds of onlookers.
A new approach
The series of dramatic deaths brought an even brighter spotlight to an issue that already had become a top priority for the Trump administration. In June, the White House launched the President’s Roadmap to Empower Veterans and End the National Tragedy of Suicide (PREVENTS) task force, an initiative aimed at developing and implementing the first governmentwide national strategy to confront the root causes of veteran suicides.
The heart of the effort, officials say, is to make suicide prevention a national public health priority and to flood radio, TV and social media with a call to action.
“The key to good public health is saturation,” said Barbara Van Dahlen, the task force’s executive director.
But in Washington and across the country, deep frustration remains because the federal government and its partners have been unable to turn the tide.
“Despite significant increases to funding, staffing, programs and attention for suicide prevention and mental health care, approximately 20 veterans, service members and members of the National Guard and Reserve have died by suicide every day since the late 1990s,” Republican members of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee tweeted Thursday, along with an announcement of legislation to funnel federal grant money to local organizations working on suicide prevention.
Indeed, administration officials readily concede the trajectory is sobering.
“The trend is not going in the direction that we want. It’s extremely concerning,” said Karin Orvis, director of the Pentagon’s suicide prevention office. “We have to do better.”
Defense Department numbers show that 325 active-duty military members and 216 reservists died by suicide last year, breaking the record set in 2012. Officials caution that those raw numbers don’t account for changes in the size of military branches, for example, meaning the overall rate of suicides could have decreased.
Data for last year will be released in the coming months, officials said.
The most recent VA data is equally troubling. From 2005 to 2016, the veteran suicide rate increased by 25.9%, while the overall American adult population rose 20.6%.
To reverse the trend, officials say, a more holistic approach is needed — one that digs far deeper than the eye-grabbing statistics. Mr. Wilkie told The Times he believes an upcoming PREVENTS task force report will offer the most comprehensive look into not just the number of suicides but also the contributing factors and what can be done about them.
“If we just focus on the last tragic act in a veteran’s life as opposed to looking at the continuum of events that can lead to that — homelessness, addiction, mental health issues — then it’s just another federal report. It becomes a doorstop,” he said.
Specialists also argue that no matter how much money the government spends, or how many reports it produces on veteran suicides, perhaps the most effective solution is also the simplest.
“There is no single path to suicide. There is no single path to suicide prevention,” Matt Miller, acting director of the VA’s suicide prevention program, said in an interview. “All of us keeping our eyes and ears open, all of us willing to connect at whatever level with whomever is right in front of us — that’s going to help address a national problem.”