Arizona, other states in ‘governors challenge’ target veteran suicides

The suicide rate was 30.1 per 100,000 veterans in 2016, compared to a national rate of 17.5, and numbers were sharply higher in Arizona, with an overall rate of 23.4 suicides per 100,000 and a vets’ rate of 44.1. (Photo by Beverly & Pack/Creative Commons)

By Keerthi Vedantam

WASHINGTON – Arizona was one of seven states that met with federal officials and veterans groups in Washington this week to map out a strategy for reversing the complex problem of suicides among veterans.

This is a critical problem in Arizona, which had the sixth-highest veteran suicide rate in the nation in 2016, due in part to the state’s aging veteran population and the wide-open spaces that make access to behavioral services difficult.

“That’s just terrible,” said Wanda Wright, director of the Arizona Department of Veterans’ Services, about the state’s high suicide rate. “And being in the position I’m in, I felt like I had some influence on that.”

Wright was in Washington as part of the inaugural Governors Challenge to Prevent Suicide Among Service Members, a joint effort by the departments of Veterans Affairs and of Health and Human Services. Health care experts, veterans and state and federal officials collaborated for three days to find local solutions to the ever-climbing veteran suicide rate.

In 2016, the most recent year for which the VA has reported data, veterans were committing suicide at a rate of 30.1 deaths per 100,000 vets, compared to an overall national rate of 17.5 suicides per 100,000 people. The numbers were sharply higher in Arizona, with an overall rate of 23.4 suicides per 100,000 and a vets’ rate of 44.1.

The Arizona Violent Death Reporting System claimed an even higher veteran suicide rate of 54.8 per 100,000 in 2016. It said the rates ranged from a high of 90.9 in Mohave County to 39.1 in La Paz County.

Arizona officials at the Washington meeting pointed to several factors driving the state’s high veteran suicide rate.

“We tried to make a correlation between how veterans were dying,” and what officials could do to address that, Wright said. “What we found is that older veterans that have access to firearms – that are in isolated places – they have a higher risk for suicide.”

And residents of rural areas face a lack of access to health care – or to reliable Internet that could bring care to them, experts said. That makes it harder for veterans in rural areas to get treatment during the transition from deployment to home life.

Getting health care providers to rural areas is difficult, said Jill Bullock from the University of Arizona’s Center for Rural Health.

“If you tend to grow your own providers, they come back, but that is not always the case,” Bullock said. “It’s harder to train and get your residency programs out to the rural areas because you don’t have the patient volume that you do in the urban areas to get all of your … requirements.”

That challenge is repeated on tribal lands where the “standard for what basic health care is is lower,” said Kristine FireThunder, executive director of the Governor’s Office on Tribal Relations.

“When you add on a specialty like behavioral health, that makes things even more difficult because they don’t have anyone inside the community to address it … especially in times of crisis,” FireThunder said.

-Video by Luv Junious/Cronkite News

Even if a culturally competent caregiver can be found, she said, turnover undermines long-term care.

“You build a relationship, you build that trust and all of a sudden (they) leave and you’re back to no one to talk to again,” FireThunder said. “You’ve got this baggage of trauma you have to unfold, but nobody’s there to help you unpack that bag.”

Federal officials hope the seven states in the challenge will help them implement a 10-year National Strategy for Preventing Veteran Suicides that calls for a collaborative approach to the problem at the federal, state and local levels. Wright, a veteran of the Air Force and the National Guard, said local input will be critical to the spread and success of the national plan.

“The VA is a federal entity … but what they’ve come to realize now is that only 30 percent of veterans in the country are engaged with the VA,” Wright said. “So where are the rest of them? They’re somewhere in the community.”

5 Comments

  1. Hey — instead of spending billions on Trump’s Berlin Wall, how about using our tax dollars to take care of our own? There’s just so much in the pot, the federal deficit has grown huge, and we need to get our priorities straight.

    • “Trump`s Berlin Wall?” If we do the research my bet is that Obama built more wall on the border than President Trump has done. A “wall” was the idea of prior Presidents and Congresses and is not original to President Trump, as you know.

      “There`s just so much in the pot?” Seems to me the fact that “the Federal deficit has grown huge” proves that the failure to take care of our own is because ALL the politicians in Washington are ignoring the needs of “our own.” The Federal deficit keeps growing because the things the politicians want are always funded even if we have to go into debt to do so.

  2. First off, as a military veteran (Active duty USAF, 1976-1996), every suicide, military or civilian, is a tragedy.

    However, the media often portrays this issue as an outgrowth of military combat experience or the endless deployments related to fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq. But a careful review of the numbers at the link provided shows that the greatest number of veterans who commit suicide are aged 55-74. Many of these people have health issues that push them over the edge, not military experiences.

    It should also be remembered that the military veteran suicide rate will probably always be higher than the civilian rate because the military is roughly 85% male in makeup year-after-year. And the male suicide rate is significantly higher than female, military or civilian.

    But perhaps the biggest problem in my mind is the definition of veteran. It includes anyone of any age who served in the Armed Forces at any time – wartime, peacetime, National Guard, Reserve, active duty, draftees, volunteers, etc. It doesn’t delineate between those who served for short periods of time or for 20 years or more, either. It doesn’t break down by education, race, ethnicity, or income level. You have a lot of people with little in common other than being a servicemember at some time in their lives. It’d be like compiling suicide statistics of everyone who attended or graduated from a community college at some time in their lives.

    I hope that this renewed interest in veteran suicides actually leads to programs and assistance that helps saves lives, and not just wind up as talking points for politicians and rent-seeking activists.

  3. well you know albert just has to rant against the CoC in his replies. Why dont you rant against your precious democraps who cause the issue to begin with? You do realize that the fence is less than 1% of the fed budget, yet care and services for the illegals runs into the BILLIONS annually. Almost 50000 illegals inhabit our jails with more coming into the country. So as pointed out albert if you do yourself in and have ever served you are one of the STATISTICS to be counted. Remember statistics dont lie but LIARS use statistics!

  4. It’s OUR WALL not Trump’s. Congress gave us these stupid laws and MUST can our immigration policies so they are merit based instead of blood based. This is a really good show on how lazy and complicit politicians are with cartels, big business, globalist organizations (unions,Soros NGO’s). Neither party cares about the safety of American Citizens.

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