‘Show Me The Data’: Experts Express Skepticism Over VA Report Finding Veteran Suicides Plummeted In 2020

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Micaela Burrow Investigative Reporter, Defense
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  • The VA’s annual veteran suicide report found that 16.8 former servicemembers committed suicide per day, the lowest number on that metric since 2006.
  • However, veterans’ charity leaders and recent research suggests the VA may have an inaccurate or incomplete accounting of veteran suicide data.
  • “While the new VA data showing a decline in the rate of suicide among veterans certainly is hopeful, I question the completeness of the data,” Frank Larkin, COO of the Troops First Foundation, told the Daily Caller News Foundation.

A government report published Monday showed a notable decline in veteran suicide numbers in 2020, but veteran advocates expressed skepticism over the completeness of the data used.

The number of veterans who committed suicide in 2020, the latest year for which data is available, fell 9.7% since 2018 to 16.8 per day, the lowest since 2006, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs’ (VA) annual report released Monday. However, a recently published study revealing that the VA has severely undercounted veteran suicide rates calls into question the methodology of the VA report, Frank Larkin, COO of the Troops First Foundation, told the Daily Caller News Foundation.

“While the new VA data showing a decline in the rate of suicide among veterans certainly is hopeful, I question the completeness of the data,” Larkin told the DCNF. (RELATED: Veterans Organizations Urge Congress To Establish ‘Warrior Call Day’ Combating Military Suicide Epidemic)

The VA’s 2022 National Veteran Suicide Prevention Annual Report found that in 2020, 6,146 former servicemembers took their own lives by suicide. Between 2019 and 2020, the suicide rate, adjusted for age and sex differences, fell by 4.8% compared to a 3.6% drop among non-veteran populations.

“This year’s report shows real progress, but there is still so much work to be done,” VA Secretary Denis McDonough said in a statement. “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.”

Dr. Matt Miller, the VA’s director of suicide prevention, attributed the decline to community and evidence-based clinical interventions as well as “incorporating consideration of multiple risk factors and predictive factors,” according to the Army Times.

The VA has no national veteran database, instead obtaining service and death records from individual states to assess national trends, according to the new report’s method summary. Lack of standardization on collection and scoring methods increases the risk of conducting research that paints an inaccurate picture of the rates at which former servicemembers take their own lives, Larkin explained to the DCNF.

In addition, the VA overlooks a “gray area” of deaths in which deliberate self-harm, from addiction, drug overdoses and alcohol-induced behavior, plays a role, according to Larkin.

Veterans advocacy group America’s Warrior Partnership took information on military service and cause of death from eight states and matched it up with Department of Defense (DOD) records to identify a 37% greater suicide rate among veterans than reported by the VA in a study published Saturday. When researchers added self-injury mortality deaths, often classified as accidental or of unknown cause, it found that the total number of veterans who took their own lives is 2.4 times higher than the official VA suicide rate.

The total number of veterans who take their own lives could be as high as 44 per day, according to the study.

One reason for the discrepancy was that the VA often misses people who formerly served in the U.S. military because it draws de-identified data from the CDC to drive its annual study, Jim Lorraine, president of America’s Warrior Partnership, previously explained to the DCNF. In contrast, Lorraine’s study directly correlated state death records with DOD personnel lists.

“We know actually who served in the military and who didn’t,” he said.

The VA report showed no significant change in suicide rates after the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020, even though federal lockdowns meant to prevent the spread of the virus also increased social isolation. Previous research from the VA has shown social isolation as a major contributing factor in veterans’ decisions to take their own lives.

The VA does not include deaths from intentional drug overdoses in its suicide count, Lorraine previously explained. Drug-related deaths nevertheless soared in 2020 amid nationwide health care disruptions.

The report noted that a decrease in the veteran population and simultaneous increase in the overall U.S. population limit the interpretation of the statistics.

Raw suicide rates, not adjusted for demographic differences within the veteran population, show little change between 2018 and 2020; in 2018, there were 17.6 veteran suicide deaths per day out of an estimated population of 20.3 million veterans. In 2020, there were 16.8 veteran suicide deaths per day out of 19.4 million veterans.

Further, the 2022 report lists the 2018 number of veteran suicides per day as 18.6. The VA did not respond to a query from the DCNF regarding the discrepancy.

“Our methodology for creating this report is well-established and consistent, based on verified data from the CDC and DOD, and meets the quality and standards of a peer-reviewed publication,” a VA spokesperson told the DCNF.

However, Government Accountability Office reports in 2015 and, most recently, in 2020 have highlighted errors and inconsistencies in VA suicide tracking methods.

If the VA report accurately reflects veteran suicide trends, “that’s good news,” said Larkin. “But show us the data.”

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