Suicide Prevention Among Veterans

Suicide Prevention Among Veterans
May 5, 2008
Ramya Sundararaman, Sidath Viranga Panangala,
and Sarah A. Lister
Domestic Social Policy Division

Suicide Prevention Among Veterans
Numerous news stories in the popular print and electronic media have
documented suicides among servicemembers and veterans returning from Operation
Iraqi Freedom (OIF) and Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF). In the United States,
there are more than 30,000 suicides annually. Suicides among veterans are included
in this number, but it is not known in what proportion. There is no nationwide
system for surveillance of suicide specifically among veterans. Recent data show that
about 20% of suicide deaths nationwide could be among veterans. It is not known
what proportion of these deaths are among OIF/OEF veterans.
Veterans have a number of risk factors that increase their chance of attempting
suicide. These risk factors include combat exposure, post-traumatic stress disorder
(PTSD) and other mental health problems, traumatic brain injury (TBI), poor social
support structures, and access to lethal means.
Several bills addressing suicide in veterans have been introduced in the 110th
Congress. On November 5, 2007, the Joshua Omvig Veterans Suicide Prevention
Act (P.L. 110-110) was signed into law, requiring the Department of Veterans Affairs
(VA) to establish a comprehensive program for suicide prevention among veterans.
More recently, the Veterans Suicide Study Act (S. 2899) was introduced. This bill
would require the VA to conduct a study, and report to Congress, regarding suicides
among veterans since 1997.
The VA has carried out a number of suicide prevention initiatives, including
establishing a national suicide prevention hotline for veterans, conducting awareness
events at VA medical centers, and screening and assessing veterans for suicide risk.
This report discusses data sources and systems that can provide information
about suicides in the general population and among veterans, and known risk and
protective factors associated with suicide in each group. It also discusses suicide
prevention efforts by the VA. It does not discuss Department of Defense (DOD)
activities, or VA’s treatment of risk factors for suicide, such as depression, PTSD,
and substance abuse.
This report will be updated when legislative activity warrants.

In troduction ......................................................1
Data and Data Systems for Tracking Suicide............................2
Suicide in the U.S. General Population.................................3
Incidence of Suicide............................................4
Risk and Protective Factors......................................5
Suicide Among Veterans............................................5
Incidence of Suicide............................................6
Risk and Protective Factors......................................7
The Effects of PTSD, TBI, and Depression on Suicide Risk.............8
Congressional Action...............................................9
VA’s Suicide Prevention Efforts.....................................10
Mental Health Strategic Plan....................................10
Mental Health Research........................................10
Suicide Awareness............................................10
Screening ...................................................11
Suicide Prevention Hotline.....................................12
Funding for Suicide Prevention..................................12
Conclusion ......................................................12
List of Tables
Table 1. U.S. Death Rates for Suicide, by Age, 2004......................4

Suicide Prevention Among Veterans
Considerable public attention has been drawn toward the mental health care
needs of veterans, especially those returning from combat in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Numerous news stories in the popular print and electronic media have documented
suicides among servicemembers and veterans returning from Operation Iraqi
Freedom (OIF) and Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF).1 Some veterans advocacy
groups have filed a class-action lawsuit claiming that the Department of Veterans
Affairs (VA) is not providing adequate and timely access to mental health care, and2
that this has led to an “epidemic of suicides.”
However, most often the data cited in these press reports do not differentiate
between suicides among veterans and active duty servicemembers.3 It is important
to make this distinction, because two separate health care systems — at the VA and
the Department of Defense (DOD), respectively — are responsible for providing
mental health care to these two distinct populations. This report explains the
difficulties in determining the incidence of suicide among veterans, summarizes what
is known about suicides in the general population and among veterans, and discusses
known risk and protective factors associated with suicide in each group. It also
discusses recent congressional action to address suicide among veterans, and suicide
prevention efforts by the VA. The report does not discuss DOD activities, or VA’s
treatment of risk factors for suicide, such as depression, post-traumatic stress disorder
(PTSD), and substance abuse.

1 Ken Fuson and Jennifer Jacobs, “Iowans Lauded for Anti-suicide Efforts,” The Des Moines
Register, January 26, 2008; Dana Priest, “Soldier Suicides at Record Level,” Washington
Post, January 31, 2008, Page A01; “Soldier, After Bipolar Treatment and Suicide Attempts,
Sent Back to War Zone,” Editor & Publisher, February 11, 2008; “Suicide Epidemic
Among Veterans — A CBS News Investigation Uncovers a Suicide Rate for Veterans Twice
That of Other Americans,” aired November 13, 2007. OEF, which began in October 2001,
conducts combat operations in Afghanistan and other locations. OIF, which began in March

2003, conducts combat operations in Iraq and other locations.

2 Veterans for Common Sense and Veterans United for Truth, Inc., v. James B. Peake,
Secretary of Veterans Affairs, et al., Plaintiffs Trial Brief, Case No. C-07-3758-SC, filed
April 17, 2008.
3 Within the context of the VA, a veteran is defined as a “person who served in the active
military, naval, or air service, and who was discharged or released therefrom under
conditions other than dishonorable.” [38 U.S.C. § 101(2); 38 C.F.R. § 3.1(d)]. The VA
largely bases its determination of veteran status upon military department service records.

Data and Data Systems for Tracking Suicide
Suicide is the act of intentionally ending one’s life, attempted suicide is an effort
that does not have a fatal outcome, and suicidal ideation is thinking about or wanting
to end one’s life. Because completed (versus attempted) suicide results in death,4
national statistics on suicide come from death certificate data. These data are
collected by state and territorial health officials, under their authority, and are
voluntarily reported to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC’s)
National Vital Statistics System. The CDC analyzes the data and publishes
information on numbers and rates of death, and important trends, in the United
States.5 The CDC also publishes a U.S. standard death certificate, which states and
territories can modify. Most U.S. deaths are not investigated by government
officials. Possible suicides may be investigated, however, pursuant to state and
territorial authorities. To the extent that a death is recognized as a suicide, the
standard death certificate provides the means to report suicide as the manner of death,
but it has limited options for noting other information that may be relevant to the
In 2003, CDC launched the National Violent Death Reporting System
(NVDRS), an active surveillance system that provides detailed information about the
circumstances of violent deaths, including suicide.6 The NVDRS augments death
certificate data by linking it to death investigation reports filed by coroners, medical
examiners, and law enforcement officials. These added layers of information allow
the NVDRS to identify suicide risk factors, such as depression; to gather additional
information, such as toxicology results; and to more reliably capture information that
could have been, but was not, completed on the standard death certificate. At this
time, the NVDRS is not in operation nationwide, but only in 17 states, and NVDRS
data might not be generalizable to the entire U.S. population. Also, because
protocols for death investigation vary from one state to the next, NVDRS data might
not be comparable between those states in which it is in operation. CDC’s goal is to
expand the system to all 50 states, all U.S. territories, and the District of Columbia,
and to continue efforts to standardize data collection and analysis across states.
At this time, there is no nationwide system for surveillance (i.e., tracking) of
suicide among all veterans. As with all suicides in civilian jurisdiction, suicides
among veterans may be investigated, and the death certificates completed, by state
and territorial authorities. Unless a veteran’s suicide occurs in a VA facility,
opportunities for the VA to become aware of the incident may be limited. Three

4 In reference to fatal suicides, the public health community prefers to use the term
“completed,” rather than “committed” or “successful,” to recognize the frequent association
of suicide with mental illness, and reduce the accompanying stigma.
5 For more information, see Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Mortality
Data from the National Vital Statistics System, at [],
visited May 2, 2008.
6 See CDC, National Violent Death Reporting System, at [
profiles/nvdrs/default.htm] .

approaches are being used to track the incidence of suicide among veterans, though
each of them has serious shortcomings.
First, CDC’s standard death certificate allows officials to note if a decedent has
ever served7 in the U.S. Armed Forces. However, the fact that a decedent is a veteran
is not always known when the certificate is completed. Although suicides among
veterans are a part of total national suicide statistics, it is not known what proportion
of that total is made up of veterans.
Second, VA data may be linked to CDC’s vital statistics data through the
National Death Index (NDI). This CDC data system allows authorized researchers
to link national death data to other data systems, identifying the fact that an
individual had died of suicide, and that a death certificate has been filed.8 This would
allow the VA to identify suicide deaths among its enrollees. (Subsequent research
steps are cumbersome. For example, researchers typically must contact state officials
to access the actual death certificates.) The NDI is not an ongoing data linkage that
would constitute surveillance for suicide. It can be used, however, to support special
studies by linking specific data sets. For example, researchers from the VA and the
University of Michigan conducted a study in which they linked data from VA’s
National Registry for Depression (NARDEP) to the NDI, allowing VA to match its
patient registry to certified suicide deaths even when the decedent’s veteran status
had not been noted on the death certificate.9 However, because only about one-third
of veterans receive their health care from the VA, using VA health systems data for
linkage would not capture the complete experience of suicide among veterans.
Third, the NVDRS resolves many of the problems discussed above. Through
ongoing active surveillance, NVDRS substantially improves the likelihood that a
suicide victim’s veteran status will be captured, and it provides additional useful
information about suicide incidents. But NVDRS is in operation in only 17 states.
Though CDC intends it to become a nationwide system, expansion would depend on
appropriations. Congress first provided funding for NVDRS in FY2002 and has
expressed support for the program in annual appropriations report language. The
program has not received a specified appropriation in recent years, but rather is
funded through CDC’s budget for intentional injury prevention and control.
Suicide in the U.S. General Population
There are risk factors that increase the likelihood that someone will attempt
suicide, and protective factors that decrease that likelihood. This section provides

7 This definition captures current and former U.S. military servicemembers.
8 See CDC, National Death Index, at [].
9 Zivin et al., “Suicide Mortality among Individuals Receiving Treatment for Depression in
the Veterans Affairs Health System: Associations with Patient and Treatment Setting
Characteristics,” American Journal of Public Health, Vol. 97, No. 12, pp. 2193-8, December

2007, hereafter referred to as Zivin et al., study of depression and suicide in veterans.

some context for suicide among veterans by discussing the incidence, and risk and
protective factors, for suicide in the U.S. general population.10
Incidence of Suicide
Suicide is a serious public health problem in the United States. According to
CDC, there were more than 32,000 suicide deaths in the United States in 2004,
making it the 11th leading cause of death that year. On average, there are four
suicides among males for each one among females. Use of firearms is the most
common method of suicide among males, while poisoning is the most common
method among females. Suicide is the second leading cause of death among 25-34
year olds, and the third leading cause of death among 15-24 year olds. Although
suicide is a leading cause of death in younger adults, the rate of suicide (number of
suicides within the age group per 100,000 resident population in the age group) is
actually highest in individuals aged 45 or older. Table 1 presents suicide rates across
age groups in the United States for 2004, as published by CDC. It is important to
note that except in the youngest age group, these rates may, and probably do, include
suicides among veterans, though in proportions that are not known.
Table 1. U.S. Death Rates for Suicide, by Age, 2004

5-1415-2425-4445-6465 yearsAll agea

Age Groupyearsyearsyearsyearsand overgroups
Suicide rate0.710.313.915.414.310.9
Source: CDC, death rates for suicide, according to sex, race, Hispanic origin, and age: selected years,
1950-2004, “Health, United States, 2007,” Table 46, at [
Notes: CDC does not calculate rates based on small numbers of suicides among those younger than
five years of age, as such rates are not statistically reliable. In the source above, CDC also
published rates for sub-intervals of the age intervals presented here (e.g., for those aged 25-34
years and 35-44 years).
a. This rate is age-adjusted, calculated using the year 2000 standard population.
There are no official national statistics on attempted suicide (i.e., attempts that
were not fatal), but it is generally estimated that there are 25 attempts for each death
by suicide. Also, it is reported that there are three suicide attempts among females
for every one among males.

10 Unless otherwise noted, information in this section is drawn from CDC: “Suicide, Facts
at a Glance,” Summer 2007, and “Understanding Suicide, Fact Sheet,” 2006, at
[]; and “Surveillance for Violent Deaths — National
Violent Death Reporting System, 16 States, 2005,” MMWR, vol. 57(SS03), April 11, 2008,
hereafter referred to as NVDRS 2005 report, at [
mmwrhtml/ss5703a1.htm] .

Risk and Protective Factors
No single cause or factor leads to suicide. It is a “final common outcome with
multiple potential antecedents, precipitants, and underlying causes.”11 A number of
factors are known to increase or decrease the likelihood that an individual will
attempt suicide. Factors that increase this likelihood are called risk factors. Risk
factors exist at multiple levels, involving individual, family, community, and societal
factors. Conversely, factors that decrease a person’s inclination to attempt suicide
are called protective factors, which also exist at multiple levels. It is important to
note that none of these factors in isolation is known to cause or prevent suicide.
The single best predictor of an increased risk of suicide is a history of a prior
suicide attempt. Other risk factors for suicide in the general population include
certain mental illnesses such as depression, alcohol and substance abuse, history of
trauma or abuse, family history of suicide, job or financial stress, the stigma
associated with seeking mental health care, barriers to health care access, and easy
access to lethal means. Protective factors include strong family or community
connections; accessible and effective clinical care; skills in problem solving, conflict
resolution, and nonviolent handling of disputes; and cultural and religious beliefs that
discourage suicide.12
Suicide Among Veterans
In the absence of national surveillance for suicide among veterans, information
is limited to the findings of special epidemiological studies and surveys. These vary
considerably in their design and in the sub-population of veterans studied, and they
often yield conflicting results.
It is tempting to make comparisons between these studies, and with information
about suicide in the general population. Such comparisons are often made, but they
are not necessarily valid. Among other things, data about suicides in the general
population includes suicides among veterans. Information about suicide in groups
that exclude veterans is scant, as is information about the extent to which data for
veterans may skew the data for the general population, if at all. An additional
problem in interpreting the findings of these special studies is that they are often
conducted on populations of veterans who are receiving treatment for suicide risk
factors. On the one hand, this makes it difficult to determine whether study findings
reflect the effects of risk factors, or the effects of interventions. On the other hand,
it indicates that efforts to develop systematic surveillance of suicide among veterans
may, with careful attention to design, also provide the means to evaluate the

11 Testimony of Michael Shepherd, M.D, Office of Healthcare Inspections, Office of
Inspector General, Department of Veterans Affairs, in U.S. Congress, House Committee on
Veterans’ Affairs, hearing on Stopping Suicides: Mental Health Challenges Within the
Department of Veterans Affairs, December 12, 2007.
12 Suicide Prevention Resource Center, “Risk and Protective Factors for Suicide,” at
[], visited April 30, 2008.

effectiveness of prevention and treatment programs. This section discusses the
findings of some key studies of suicide among veterans.
Incidence of Suicide
The true incidence of suicide among veterans is not known. This section
discusses information from two recent published studies that yield a partial picture
of the burden of suicide in this group.
In 2005, the NVDRS identified 1,821 suicides among former or current military
personnel, comprising 20% of all suicides, in the 16 states in which the system was
operational that year.13 CDC’s published findings about these 1,821 decedents
include the following:
!1,765 (96.9%) were male.
!1,415 (77.7%) were 45 years of age or older.
!The most common method used was firearms (67.9%), followed by
poisoning (12.7%), and hanging/strangulation/suffocation (11.5%).
!47.2% were married, 25.0% were divorced, 13.0% were widowed,
and 14.0% were never married.14
Researchers from the VA and the University of Michigan conducted a cohort
study of 807,694 veterans who were diagnosed with depression in the VA health
system, and registered in the VA’s National Registry for Depression (NARDEP),
between 1999 and 2004.15 During the study period, 1,683 (0.21%) of the veterans in
this high-risk group committed suicide. The researchers calculated a rate of 88.25
suicides per 100,000 person-years in this group, seven to eight times higher than the
rate in the general population for the same time period. They noted that this rate was
similar, though, to a more relevant comparison, namely, to suicides among those in
the general population who were depressed.16 They also found the rate among the
group of veterans studied to be highest among those who were younger than 45 years
of age, in contrast with the age trend in the general population.
In December 2007, VA testified that it had identified 144 known suicides
among OIF/OEF veterans from the time the conflicts began through the end of 2005,

13 NVDRS 2005 report. The definition “current and former military personnel” is likely to
include both current military personnel and veterans, but the publication does not provide
information about each group separately, or about whether such separate information is
14 The remaining small number of decedents were “married but separated,” “single, not
otherwise specified,” or their marital status was not known. These findings were not cross-
tabulated by age.
15 Zivin et al., study of depression and suicide in veterans. The authors used CDC’s National
Death Index to link NARDEP registrants with death certificate data, in order to identify
registrants who had died, and determine that they died of suicide, during the study period.
16 The authors cited only one study on which to base this comparison, though, which likely
reflects the limited availability of studies in groups that are meaningful for comparison. It
is not clear whether the comparison group included or excluded veterans.

and that this number translated into a rate that is not statistically different from the
rate for age, sex, and race matched individuals from the general population. These
data have not been published.17
Risk and Protective Factors
While there have been a number of studies to identify risk and protective factors
for suicide in the general population, few studies have looked at factors specific to
veterans. In the general population, suicide risk factors include male gender; older
age; diminished psycho-social support (e.g., homelessness or unmarried status);
availability and knowledge of firearms; and the co-existence of medical and
psychiatric conditions. This profile describes a large portion of the veteran patient
population, making suicide risk management particularly challenging in the VA
health care system.18 A study that screened 703 patients from a general medical
outpatient clinic at a VA hospital found that 7.3% of the patients had suicidal
ideation.19 Younger and white patients were found to be at increased risk. The risk
was higher in patients with self-described fair or poor mental health, a history of
mental health treatment, and fair or poor perceived physical health. When major
depression was controlled for, anxiety and substance abuse disorders continued to
show an association with suicidal ideation.
CDC’s NVDRS data identified the following associated circumstances among
a group of 1,622 former or current military personnel who died by suicide in 2005:20
!Although almost half of them (47.2%) were depressed at the time of
death, only about a fourth (26.7%) were receiving mental health
!17.2% had an alcohol problem, and 7.7% had a problem with other
!24.5% had a problem with an intimate partner.
!38.4% had a physical health problem.
!28.0% had experienced an acute crisis during the prior two weeks.
!33.9% had left a suicide note, 13.3% had made a previous suicide
attempt, and 29.0% had disclosed their intent to commit suicide with
enough time for someone to have intervened.

17 Testimony of Ira Katz, M.D., Ph.D., Deputy Chief Patient Care Services Officer, Office
of Mental Health, Veterans Health Administration, Department of Veterans Affairs in U.S.
Congress, House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, Stopping Suicides: Mental Healththst
Challenges Within the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, hearings, 110 Cong., 1 sess.,
December 12, 2007.
18 Lambert et al., “Suicide Risk Factors among Veterans: Risk Management in the Changing
Culture of the Department of Veterans Affairs,” Journal of Mental Health Administration,
Vol. 24, No. 3, pp. 350-8, Summer 1997.
19 Lish et al., “Suicide Screening in a Primary Care Setting at a Veterans Affairs Medical
Center,” Psychosomatics, Vol. 37, No. 5, pp. 413-24, 1996.
20 NVDRS 2005 report. This group is a subset of the 1,821 former or current military
personnel whose suicides were recorded in NVDRS in 2005, for whom these additional
types of information were collected.

The VA/University of Michigan study of suicide among veterans with
depression found that having a service-connected disability was associated with a
lower risk of suicide in this group.21 The authors suggest that greater access to VA
health facilities and regular compensation payments may explain the protective
The Effects of PTSD, TBI, and Depression on Suicide Risk
This section describes three suicide risk factors that are common among
veterans: Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI), and
depression. PTSD and TBI are common consequences of war, with distinct
symptoms, treatment modalities, and long-term effects. PTSD has been recognized
in various forms throughout military history. It is an anxiety disorder, with
symptoms of varying severity, that can occur following experiences, such as military
combat, in which grave physical injury occurred or was threatened. People who
suffer from PTSD often relive the experience through nightmares and flashbacks,
have difficulty sleeping, and feel detached or estranged. TBI occurs when a sudden
physical trauma causes damage to the brain. Improvised explosive devices (IEDs),
which have been used extensively in the current conflict in Iraq, can cause TBI,
sometimes in the absence of obvious external signs of injury. Symptoms of TBI can
be mild, moderate, or severe, depending on the extent of the brain injury. When
symptoms of TBI or PTSD are mild, they may go undiagnosed, or be confused with
conditions with similar symptoms, such as other mental illnesses, including
depression, or substance use disorders. Either PTSD or TBI may co-occur with
depression or substance abuse. Finally, some veterans have both a TBI and PTSD.
In April 2008, the RAND Corporation published a study of mental health
problems in servicemembers and veterans.22 From their review of the literature, the
authors found that in the general population, depression, PTSD, and TBI are each
independent risk factors for suicide. More limited information from studies of
servicemembers or veterans generally shows the same effect of these three risk
factors in specific groups that were studied. This information also typically shows
trends comparable to those in the general population with respect to other risk factors
for suicide, though the demonstrated effects of interactions of these factors with
depression, PTSD and TBI may differ. For example, studies have found that while
males are at greater risk of death from suicide than are females, the effects that
depression, PTSD and TBI have on increasing this risk is greater in females. Among
the general population, substance abuse, prior nonfatal suicide attempts, severity of
PTSD symptoms, and certain types of TBI are more predictive for suicide, and may
signal areas of greater suicide risk among military and veterans populations as well.
Researchers also found that combat exposure increases the risk of suicide, as well as
the likelihood of PTSD, which itself also increases the risk of suicide.
The VA/University of Michigan study of suicide among veterans with
depression found that PTSD was associated with a lower risk of suicide in this

21 Zivin et al., study of depression and suicide in veterans.
22 Tanelian and Jaycox, “Invisible Wounds of War,” RAND, 2008, at [
monographs/2008/RAND_MG720.1.pdf], visited April 28, 2008.

group.23 The authors suggest that this unexpected finding may reflect the effect of
treatment for PTSD, rather than a protective effect of PTSD itself.
Congressional Action
In the 109th Congress, two measures (H.R. 5771 and S. 3808) were introduced
regarding the prevention of suicide among veterans. However, these bills did not see
further legislative action.
In the 110th Congress, the Joshua Omvig Veterans Suicide Prevention Act (H.R.
327) was introduced in the House, and a companion version (S. 479) was introduced
in the Senate.24 The House passed H.R. 327 on March 21, 2007, and the Senate
passed the House measure with an amendment on September 27. The bill was signed
into law (P.L. 110-110) on November 5, 2007.25 The act, among other things,
requires the VA to establish a comprehensive program for suicide prevention among
veterans. In carrying out this comprehensive program, the VA must designate a
suicide prevention counselor at each VA medical facility. Each counselor is required
to work with local emergency rooms, police departments, mental health
organizations, and veterans service organizations to engage in outreach to veterans.
The act also requires the VA to provide for research on best practices for suicide
prevention among veterans, and requires the VA Secretary to provide for outreach
and education for veterans and their families, with special emphasis on providing
information to veterans of OIF and OEF. The act requires VA to provide for the
availability of 24-hour mental health care for veterans and to establish a 24-hour
hotline for veterans to call if needed.
Also in the 110th Congress, the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal
Year 2008 (P.L. 110-181) requires the Secretaries of DOD and VA to develop a
comprehensive care and transition policy for servicemembers who are recovering
from serious injuries or illnesses related to their military service, and to specifically
address the risk of suicide among these individuals in developing the required
More recently, the Veterans Suicide Study Act (S. 2899) was introduced. This
measure would require the VA to study and report to Congress regarding suicides
that have occurred among veterans since 1997. In carrying out this study, the VA
Secretary would have to coordinate with the Secretary of Defense, Veterans Service
Organizations, the CDC, and state public health offices and veterans agencies.

23 Zivin et al., study of depression and suicide in veterans.
24 The Joshua Omvig Veterans Suicide Prevention Act is named for a veteran who
completed suicide on December 22, 2005.
25 Codified at 38 U.S.C.§ 1720F. For a detailed legislative history of P.L. 110-110, see
H.Rept. 110-55 and S.Rept. 110-132.
26 See CRS Report RL34371, “Wounded Warrior” and Veterans Provisions in the FY2008
National Defense Authorization Act, by Sarah A. Lister, Sidath Viranga Panangala, and
Christine Scott.

VA’s Suicide Prevention Efforts27
In response to legislation and congressional oversight, the VA has initiated
several suicide prevention activities. Following is a summary of major activities.
Mental Health Strategic Plan
In 2004, the VA developed the Mental Health Strategic Plan (MHSP), which
aimed to present a new approach to mental health care, to focus on recovery rather
than pathology, and to integrate mental health care into overall health care for veteran
patients. This five-year action plan, with more than 200 initiatives, includes
timetables and responsible offices identified for each action item. A number of these
action items are specifically aimed at the prevention of suicide. In 2006, following
a request by the House Committee on Veterans Affairs, the VA’s Inspector General
(IG) undertook an assessment of VA’s progress in implementing the MHSP
initiatives for suicide prevention, and provided recommendations.28 The IG’s
findings revealed that MHSP initiatives pertaining to 24-hour crisis availability,
outreach, referral, and development of methods for tracking veterans at risk have
been implemented in multiple facilities, but not yet systemwide. Initiatives focused
on the development of methods for screening, assessment of veterans at risk,
emerging best practice treatment interventions, education of VA health providers,
and an electronic suicide prevention database have been piloted or are in the process
of being piloted at selected facilities.
Mental Health Research
VA’s Mental Illness Research, Education and Clinical Center (MIRECC) at
Denver, Colorado, and the Center of Excellence in Mental Health and PTSD at
Canandaigua, New York, have been specifically focusing on research related to
suicide prevention. According to the VA, ongoing studies at these centers are
studying suicide risk factors, validation of suicide ideation screening instruments,
quality of mental health care and its relationship to suicide prevention, and risk
factors for suicide as it relates to depression.
Suicide Awareness
In April 2007, VA held its first Suicide Prevention Awareness Day at all VA
medical centers (VAMCs). The program included recognizing risk factors for
suicide, and proper protocols for responding to crisis situations. VA held its second
Suicide Prevention Awareness Day in September 2007. The program consisted of
required training for all staff on general principles of suicide prevention, and the use
of the national VA Suicide Prevention Hotline (see below).

27 Drawn from the Department of Veterans Affairs, Report to Congress, P.L. 110-110,
Comprehensive Program for Suicide Prevention Among Veterans, February 2008.
28 Department of Veterans Affairs, Office of Inspector General, “Implementing VHA’s
Mental Health Strategic Plan Initiatives for Suicide Prevention,” Report No. 06-03706-126,


VA has also appointed Suicide Prevention Coordinators who are located at each
VA medical center. They were appointed in response to P.L. 110-110, which
required VA to appoint suicide prevention counselors in each VA medical facility.
The primary function of these coordinators is to support the identification of patients
at high risk for suicide, and to ensure that their monitoring and care are intensified.
Furthermore, they are involved in training and education, both within the VA and in
the community. All the coordinators are licensed mental health professionals.
A screening program aims to identify individuals who have mental or emotional
problems that increase their risk for suicide.29 VA has implemented a policy to
screen all OEF/OIF veterans for depression, PTSD, and alcohol abuse upon their
initial visit to VA medical centers or clinics. Furthermore, screening for depression
and alcohol abuse is required on an annual basis for all veterans, and screening for
PTSD is required annually for the first five years after enrollment, and every five
years thereafter. Veterans who screen positive for one of these conditions are
required to receive a follow-up clinical evaluation that considers both the
condition(s) related to the positive screen, and the risk of suicide. When this process
confirms the presence of a mental disorder or suicide risk, veterans are offered
mental health treatment. When there is a referral or request for mental health
services, veterans must receive an initial evaluation within 24 hours. If this
evaluation identifies an urgent need, treatment is to be provided immediately.
Otherwise, veterans must receive a full diagnostic and treatment planning evaluation
and the initiation of care within two weeks.
In addition, the DOD administers a post-deployment health reassessment
(PDHRA) 90-180 days after a servicememember’s return from deployment, to
identify health concerns, with an emphasis placed on screening for mental health
conditions that may have emerged since returning home. Information gathered
during this assessment helps DOD identify servicemembers who require referrals for
further evaluation.30 The Government Accountability Office (GAO) has stated that
DOD shares information gathered through the PDHRA with the VA. According to
GAO, “VA officials obtain PDHRA information about servicemembers referred to
VA and individual servicemembers’ [PDHRA] when they access VA health care.
Each month, VA receives a report that provides monthly and cumulative totals of
servicemembers referred, including servicemembers referred to VA facilities.”31
However, it is unclear at this time if VA uses this information to specifically screen
those who may be potentially at risk of suicide.

29 For more information on screening tools and their effectiveness, see CRS Report
RS22647, Screening for Youth Suicide Prevention, by Ramya Sundararaman.
30 The PDHRA (DD Form 2900) includes questions about feeling down, depressed, or
hopeless, the occurrence of nightmares, relationship issues with family and friends, and
increased alcohol use.
31 U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), DOD’s Post-Deployment Health
Reassessment, GAO-08-181R, January 25, 2008, p.7.

Suicide Prevention Hotline
The VA has also partnered with the Lifeline Program, a grantee of the Substance
Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), of the Department
of Health and Human Services (HHS), to develop a VA suicide prevention hotline.
Those who call 1-800-273-TALK are asked to press “1” if they are a veteran, or are
calling about a veteran.32 When they do so, they are connected directly to VA’s
hotline call center, where they speak to a VA mental health professional with
real-time access to the veteran’s medical records. The responders at the VA suicide
prevention hotline have received American Association of Suicidology (AAS)
credentialing and certification.
In emergencies, the hotline contacts local emergency resources such as police
or ambulance services to ensure an immediate response. In other cases, after
providing support and counseling, the hotline transfers care to the suicide prevention
coordinator at the nearest VAMC for follow-up care.
From October 7 to November 10, 2007, 1,636 veterans and 311 family members
or friends called the VA suicide prevention hotline. These calls led to 363 referrals
to suicide prevention coordinators and 93 rescues involving emergency services.33
Funding for Suicide Prevention
According to VA estimates, in FY2008, spending for the suicide prevention
program will include $970,000 to establish the suicide prevention hotline; $1.97
million for the Center of Excellence in Canandaigua, New York; $2.20 million for
the Mental Illness Research, Education and Clinical Center in Denver, Colorado;
$90,000 for the Serious Mental Illness Research, Education and Clinical Center for
monitoring of suicide rates and risk factors; and $14.32 million for Suicide34
Prevention Coordinators.
There has been considerable recent interest in the burden of suicide among
veterans, in particular those who have recently returned from military service in
Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom. This interest has thrown
a spotlight on the fact that there is not, at this time, a system of surveillance for
suicide among veterans.

32 VA is using the national suicide prevention hotline to provide this service to veterans.
33 Testimony of Ira Katz, M.D., Ph.D., Deputy Chief Patient Care Services Officer, Office
of Mental Health, Veterans Health Administration, Department of Veterans Affairs in U.S.
Congress, House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, Stopping Suicides: Mental Healththst
Challenges Within the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, hearings, 110 Cong., 1 sess.,
December 12, 2007.
34 Department of Veterans Affairs, Report to Congress, P.L. 110-110, Comprehensive
Program for Suicide Prevention Among Veterans, p. 7, February 2008.

Despite recent interest in comparing suicide rates between veterans and the
general population, this may not be the most useful comparison. In numerous ways
that affect their suicide risk, veterans are not like the general population. Also, the
VA has an interest in decreasing the burden of suicide among veterans, whether this
burden exceeds that of the general population or not. What may be more meaningful,
and more important to achieve, is the establishment of data systems that support a
more robust and reliable understanding of suicide among veterans. The ideal systems
would describe a clear baseline, and provide a means to track changes going forward
— with respect to such things as risk and protective factors, and the effects of
treatment — in order to know which interventions work, and where to target them.