Suicide among veterans highest in western US, rural areas

Suicide among military veterans is especially high in the western U.S. and rural areas, according to new government data that show wide state-by-state disparities and suggest social isolation, gun ownership and access to health care may be factors.

The figures released Friday are the first-ever Department of Veterans Affairs data on suicide by state. It shows Montana, Utah, Nevada and New Mexico had the highest rates of veteran suicide as of 2014, the most current VA data available. Veterans in big chunks of those states must drive 70 miles or more to reach the nearest VA medical center.

The suicide rates in those four states stood at 60 per 100,000 individuals or higher, far above the national veteran suicide rate of 38.4.

The overall rate in the West was 45.5. All other regions of the country had rates below the national rate.

Other states with high veteran suicide rates, including West Virginia, Oklahoma and Kentucky, had greater levels of prescription drug use, including opioids. A VA study last year found veterans who received the highest doses of opioid painkillers were more than twice as likely to die by suicide compared to those receiving the lowest doses.

The latest VA data also reaffirmed sharp demographic differences: Women veterans are at much greater risk, with their suicide rate 2.5 times higher than for female civilians. Among men, the risk was 19 percent higher among veterans compared to civilians. As a whole, older veterans make up most military suicides — roughly 65 percent were age 50 or older.

“This report is huge,” said Rajeev Ramchand, an epidemiologist who studies suicide for the RAND Corp. He noted that the suicide rate is higher for veterans than non-veterans in every single state by at least 1.5 times, suggesting unique problems faced by former service members. “No state is immune.”

Ramchand said it was hard to pinpoint specific causes behind veteran suicide but likely involved factors more prevalent in rural areas, such as social isolation, limited health care access, gun ownership and opioid addiction. Nationally, 70 percent of the veterans who take their lives had not previously been connected to VA care.

“This requires closer investigation into why suicide rates by veteran status are higher, including the role that opiates play,” Ramchand said.

The dataset offers more detailed breakdowns on national figures released last year, which found that 20 veterans a day committed suicide. The numbers come from the…

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