Earlier this month, we celebrated Veterans Day, and thanked those who have served our nation for their sacrifice and that of their families. We must always remember that freedom is not free. Our service members put themselves in harm’s way to keep America safe, and some of them do not come home. Those who do often face challenges when returning to civilian life, including physical and mental health challenges.
Suicide rates among veterans are 1.5 times higher, on average, than among those who have not served in the military. That is an unacceptable reality, and one that we must actively work to change. The horrors of war can leave scars that are invisible, but no less real than physical injury.
According to the Department of Veterans Affairs’ 2022 National Veteran Suicide Prevention Report, at least 65,000 veterans died by suicide between 2011 and 2020. In September 2022, America’s Warrior Partnership, a Veterans Service Organization dedicated to bringing light to the epidemic of veteran suicide, published a report indicating that veterans are taking their lives at a rate approximately 2.4 times greater than previously reported by the VA. And over 80 percent of the deaths that fall in the category of self-injury mortality are determined to be overdoses, which presents the concern that the VA may not be sufficiently representing the level of deaths by suicide due to opioid overdose. These numbers are particularly concerning after the VA announced that reported veteran suicides decreased in 2020, going in the opposite direction of national trends during the pandemic.
That lack of clarity with the available data, and the lack of data about why veteran suicide rates are so high, impedes efforts to make a meaningful impact in reducing their number. Suicide is a serious public health problem, but it is also preventable. We need more information, so that we can learn the warning signs and better help our veterans with the resources and support they need when they return home.
I recently reintroduced the Veteran Suicide Prevention Act, bipartisan legislation I am leading with Congressman Derek Kilmer, from Washington, which would help us shine a light on veteran suicide. This bill would direct the VA to conduct a review of suicides by veterans that would include, among other things, the total number who died by suicide during a five-year period, details related to medication prescribed to them or found in their systems at the time of their deaths, the percentage of veterans with combat experience or trauma, Veterans Health Administration facilities with high prescription and patient suicide rates, a description of VA policies governing the prescribing of medications, and recommendations to improve veterans’ safety and well-being.
Andrew R. Garbarino represents New York’s 2nd Congressional District.