Sep 9, Suicide Epidemic News: VA Reports Suicides Among Iraq and Afghanistan Era Veterans Hits Record High

USA Today

September 9, 2008, Washington, DC – Suicide rates for young male Iraq- and Afghanistan-era veterans hit a record high in 2006, according to statistics to be released Tuesday by the Department of Veterans Affairs.

In 2006, the last year for which records are available, figures show there were about 46 suicides per 100,000 male veterans ages 18-29 who use VA services. That compares with about 20 suicides per 100,000 men of that age who are not veterans, VA records show.

The statistics accompany the release of a study conducted by a group of mental health experts appointed by VA Secretary James Peake to investigate the department’s efforts to track and prevent suicides among veterans.

“We’ve been telling Congress and the (VA) for a long time is that what we have seen are increasing numbers of mental health issues that have not been adequately addressed, says Dave Autry, spokesman for the Disabled American Veterans.

VA records show that 141 veterans who left the military after Sept. 11, 2001, committed suicide between 2002 and 2005. In the one year that followed, an additional 113 of the Iraq- and Afghanistan-era veterans killed themselves.

The report did not specify how many of those 113 saw combat. The increase in the number of suicides can be attributed in part to the rising number of veterans since 2001.

The overall suicide statistics include veterans who served during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan but were stationed outside the combat zones.

In a prepared statement, Peake said the VA will try to cut the number of suicides by following the recommendations made by the panel he appointed, which included mental health experts from the Army, Pentagon, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes of Health.

Among the panel’s recommendations:

 * Design a study that identifies suicide risks among veterans. Peake says he will produce those results in 30 days.

 * Improve suicide screening for veterans with depression or post-traumatic stress disorder. A pilot system is set to start Oct. 1, the VA says.

 * Develop a better understanding of appropriate medications for treating depression, PTSD and suicidal behavior.

The release of the VA data comes days after the Army said 2008 may be another record year for suicides among active-duty soldiers. If the trend continues, it would surpass a record of 115 suicides set in 2007.

The Army reported last week that through August, there have been 62 confirmed suicides and 31 deaths suspected of being suicides.

“If this holds true, suicide rates for the Army will surpass” the U.S. rate for the general population, an Army news release says.

Lengthy and multiple combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan cause relationship problems, a leading factor in suicides, says Col. Elspeth Ritchie, an Army psychiatrist.

It’s critical to identify soldiers in despair, said Col. Carl Castro, an Army psychiatrist. “By collecting the numbers (of suicides) we know exactly where we are at, so we know now what’s not working. We’ve got to try new things; we’ve got to get innovative.”

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