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Veterans' suicide rate on rise; VA response draws fire as too lax

U.S. troops stop a man to search him while on patrol near Command Outpost AJK (short for Azim-Jan-Kariz, a nearby village) in Maiwand District, Kandahar Province, Afghanistan, February 1, 2013. REUTERS

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By The Washington Post
Friday, Feb. 1, 2013, 7:33 p.m.

WASHINGTON — Every day, about 22 veterans in the United States kill themselves, a rate that is about 20 percent higher than the Department of Veterans Affairs' 2007 estimate, according to a two-year study by a VA researcher.

More than two-thirds of the veterans who commit suicide are 50 or older, the study indicates, suggesting that the increase in veterans' suicides is not primarily driven by those returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“There is a perception that we have a veterans' suicide epidemic on our hands. I don't think that is true,” said Robert Bossarte, an epidemiologist with the VA who conducted the study. “The rate is going up in the country, and veterans are a part of it.” The number of suicides overall in the United States increased by nearly 11 percent between 2007 and 2010, the study says.

The percentage of veterans who die by suicide has decreased slightly since 1999, even though the total number of veterans who kill themselves has gone up, the study says.

VA Secretary Eric Shinseki said his agency would continue to strengthen suicide prevention efforts. “The mental health and well-being of our courageous men and women who have served the nation is the highest priority for VA, and even one suicide is one too many,” he said in a statement.

The study follows long-standing criticism that the agency has moved far too slowly even to figure out how many veterans kill themselves. “If the VA wants to get its arms around this problem, why does it have such a small number of people working on it?” asked retired Col. Elspeth Cameron Ritchie, a former Army psychiatrist. “This is a start, but it is a faint start. It is not enough.”

Bossarte said much work remains to be done to understand the data, especially concerning the suicide risk among Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans. They constitute a minority of an overall veteran population that skews older, but recent studies have suggested that those who served in recent conflicts are 30 percent to 200 percent more likely to commit suicide than their non-veteran peers.

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