There's no doubt that the rising veteran suicide rate is one of the most serious issues currently being discussed in the news. With various reports focusing on different statistics and emphasizing different areas of concern, however, it can be difficult to determine precisely what information is being conveyed. What is the suicide rate among military veterans, and how have these numbers been compiled?
The most commonly cited figures in reference to veteran suicide rates are those of 22 per day, or one every 65 minutes. These numbers come from the Department of Veterans Affairs (DVA) in their February 2013 report on veteran suicide rates in the United States. The study, which analyzed suicide data from 1999 to 2010, determined that although "the percentage of all suicides identified as Veteran declined between the years 1999-2003 and has remained comparatively constant over recent years," the total number of deaths by suicide had increased by almost 11 percent from 2007 to 2010. The rate of suicide among veterans had also increased during this time period.
While the situation is admittedly quite grim, with record numbers of veterans committing suicide at an ever-increasing rate, the issue is most likely even more ominous than it first appears: while the report released by the Department of Veteran Affairs is the most extensive study conducted by the U.S. government on the subject of veteran suicide rates to date, the data contained within it is far from complete. The text of the study itself contains the disclaimer that "estimates that the number of suicides among Veterans each day has increased, are based on information provided by 21 states and may not be generalizable to the larger Veteran population." While it should be noted that the study takes this issue into account and attempts to fill the deficit of information by using statistics from the states that did participate, the fact remains that the report was only able to examine the data from the states that agreed to make their information available. The issue with this is that those 21 states only comprise about 40 percent of the population of the United States -- and, even more troublesome, the two largest states by population, California and Texas, are not included.
When considering the information available in the Department of Veteran Affairs study, it might be useful to note that veteran suicide is widely underreported. As discussed by Moni Basu in their article "Why Suicide Rate Among Veterans May be More Than 22 a Day," veteran suicide numbers are hard to accurately calculate for a number of reasons, including the circumstances under which death occurred, the status of the veteran in the VA system at the time of death, and even the feelings of the veteran's remaining family members. If a veteran intentionally kills themselves in a way that might be considered unintentional -- a car crash, for example -- and don't leave a note, their death might very likely be reported as accidental. Nikkolas Lookabill, whose 2010 death is widely considered to be a case of "suicide by cop," is an example of this issue in action: although he allegedly told the police he wanted them to shoot him, his death was not officially ruled a suicide. Yet another issue affecting the accurate reporting of veteran suicides is the lack of a centralized, uniform system through which deaths can be correctly reported, collected, and stored at the state-level. The lack of a normalized and constant procedure means that the only indication made regarding a veteran's status is made by the coroner or funeral director -- there is no independent confirmation of such information with the Defense Department, and if the veteran has no one to inform and confirm their status as a veteran, it is likely their death will be reported as a civilian one. Finally, another reason the numbers of veteran suicides might be underreported is due to the stigma associated with suicide and mental illness: many family members may ask that the death be ruled something other than intentional in order to protect their loved one's memory from the negative attention and discussion that suicide and mental illness can cause.
The Department of Veteran Affairs is not the only entity that has investigated the rate of suicide among veterans. A second investigation to note is one completed by News21, an investigative platform for journalism students, in August of 2013. This investigation also focused on the rates of suicide among military veterans in comparison to the general population. The investigation examined data from 2005 to 2011 that was collected from 48 states, and determined that the military veteran population is consistently overrepresented in suicides when compared to the general population: "Suicide rates within the veteran population often were double and sometimes triple the civilian suicide rate in several states. Arizona's 2011 veteran suicide rate was 43.9 per 100,000 people, nearly tripling the civilian suicide rate of 14.4." Almost one out of every five suicides committed nationally is a veteran. These numbers are even more concerning when the fact that military veterans make up only about 10 percent of the adult population in the United States. Additionally, the same issues that caused the under-reporting described above are at play in the numbers released by News21.
While the current available data makes it impossible to precisely determine the suicide rate among veterans, it seems likely that the number is significantly greater than 22 a day which is why bills such as the Clay Hunt Act are vitally important.