Better, faster research could cut vet suicides

About 17 veterans take their own lives every day, a far higher toll than occurred in America's most recent wars. The think tank RAND Corporation recently presented testimony suggesting that faster collection and publication of data, and associated research, could be used to reduce these horrific losses.


More than 6,000 veterans of the U.S. armed forces took their own lives in 2019—the most recent year for which the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has full statistics on this terrible outcome for so many of those who served this country. That’s more than 17 deaths per day, far higher than the daily average combat toll of America’s recently ended conflicts in the Middle East.

Nearly a third of the executive branch workforce of over 2 million employees has served in the armed forces, and many are combat veterans—making the ongoing fight to reduce veteran suicide an important mission for all of us. 

The think tank <a href="www.rand.org">RAND Corporation</a> has recently submitted congressional testimony and a brief on new research along with recommendations on how to further this goal. Perhaps not surprisingly, with data released by the VA lagging two years behind its collection, the group says the first step is to obtain more timely research to help stakeholders more effectively target their interventions. 

“The national mortality data infrastructure needs to be improved,” RAND stated in its report, Data-Driven Solutions for Preventing Veteran Suicide. “The [VA] just released data on veteran suicide from 2019, meaning our data is over 20 months delayed. As a result, we don’t know if COVID-19 and the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan have led to increased suicide rates among veterans.”

The second step RAND recommends is for government and other researchers to obtain and crunch more data on veterans’ “health care experiences” outside the VA system—a picture that remains inadequately documented. By studying these health experiences, including those paid for or administered by Medicare and other government programs, researchers could determine which health care systems are having more or less success in this crucial effort—data that could be used to set up improved procedures and interventions where needed. 

A third step the group recommends is zeroing in with more research and data analysis on the methods and implements veterans use in committing suicide. That is, there is a need for learning more about how veterans plan and act to end their lives—including data on the most common route, gun use—to develop better interventions. 

The final move the RAND research calls for is for the VA and other stakeholders to more quickly collect and analyze data on new methods of handling psychiatric illnesses, as they are currently applied to veterans.

“The last strategy I’ll mention is the need for data on suicide outcomes for novel treatments,” lead RAND researcher Rajiv Ramdchand stated in the group’s brief. “As new treatments are developed and tested for patients with mental health conditions, such as PTSD, and substance use disorders, data is needed on whether these therapies specifically affect suicide risk.”

“Proactive strategies are needed to actively recruit and monitor people with suicidal thoughts so we can understand the benefits these treatments may have for reducing suicide,” Ramchand said. 

Ramchand’s testimony was presented to the House Veterans' Affairs Committee at the end of last month, and is available here.

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