The nation’s understanding of military veteran suicide is incomplete
Suicide among military veterans is one of the few issues acknowledged across the political spectrum as a major crisis that must be addressed now. Media outlets have widely covered reports from the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) that, on average, 20 veterans, current service members and former National Guard and Reserve members die by suicide every day, and significant veteran suicide prevention legislation is under debate in the House and Senate Veterans’ Affairs committees. However, research reveals that the nation’s understanding of veteran suicide is incomplete.
The cause of this misunderstanding is that national records underrepresent the reality of veteran suicide within several communities. Correcting this is an essential step towards ensuring that policymakers, service providers and communities understand the true scope of veteran suicide, which will effectively address the risk factors impacting our former service members.
The gap in veteran suicide records
A matching of state death certificates and Department of Defense (DOD) records in Florida and Minnesota have revealed a significant gap between the perception and reality of veteran suicide in those two states. A comparison of Florida’s state death certificates from 2014 to 2018 with DOD-verified service records reveals that 153 former service members who died by suicide were unaccounted in official records. This same comparison revealed 68 unaccounted cases of suicide in Minnesota during the same period.
These findings are a result of research conducted by Operation Deep Dive (OpDD), a community-based veteran suicide prevention study taking place in 14 states across the country. America’s Warrior Partnership (AWP) and researchers from the University of Alabama are leading this four-year study with a grant from the Bristol-Myers Squibb Foundation.
Operation Deep Dive will conclude in December 2021. While comparisons from the remaining 12 states in the study are in progress, the analysis completed within these states is indicative of a more comprehensive gap under-representing the reality of veteran suicide.
Inconsistency causes errors
There are multiple causes behind this misrepresentation of veteran suicide. One of the most prominent issues is that there is no consistent policy ensuring state death certificates accurately identify a veteran’s status. Processes can vary county by county, and some communities do not even have an option on death certificates to indicate whether a deceased individual was a service member.
These inconsistencies result in vast discrepancies that extend beyond veteran suicide to records of all veteran deaths in a state. Operation Deep Dive researchers found that Florida death records from 2014 to 2018 are incorrect by a rate of 20 percent in properly identifying residents who served in the military. Moreover, Minnesota death records are off by 24 percent in identifying local veterans in the same time period.
The intent of pointing out these errors is not to place blame on any state or government entity, but to raise awareness of the issues that are amplifying this crisis across the country. By understanding the true scale of veteran suicide, national and local leaders can better collaborate to develop effective solutions.
The way forward
The first step toward resolving this crisis is bridging the gap in data by establishing a consistent method of tracking veteran status on death certificates nationwide. Additionally, future research on veteran suicide must expand to investigate all non-natural causes of death — such as asphyxiation, drowning, overdose, accidental gunshot, or high-speed single-driver accident — to enable communities to better understand the behaviors and social factors that lead to suicide.
Operation Deep Dive is working to broaden and clarify the nation’s understanding of the wide range of factors that can impact veteran suicide. As part of the study, researchers are conducting interviews with individuals who lost a relative, loved one, friend or co-worker who was a former service member to suicide within the past 24 months.
These interviews will help identify the ways in which communities interact — or fail to engage — a veteran in the time leading up to his or her death. Findings derived from the interviews will drive the development of a methodology to guide communities on identifying and mitigating the unique risk factors affecting their veterans.
This methodology complements the vision provided by President Trump’s Roadmap to Empower Veterans and End the National Tragedy of Suicide (PREVENTS) initiative and legislation under debate in Congress. These policies have the potential to enact a range of positive changes, such as improving data collection on veteran suicide, and awarding grants to community groups for the funding of proactive suicide prevention initiatives.
Americans must come together in support of these policies and studies that seek to end veteran suicide. Individuals who wish to learn more about Operation Deep Dive interviews, including participant eligibility requirements, can visit www.americaswarriorpartnership.org/deep-dive.
Veterans, military families and caregivers experiencing a crisis can contact the Veteran Crisis Line by calling 1-800-273-8255 and pressing 1. Veterans also can text 838255 or visit VeteransCrisisLine.net.