Suicides among military veterans, though up slightly in recent years, account for a shrinking percentage of the nation’s total number of suicides — a result of steadily rising numbers of suicides in the general population, according to a report released Friday by the Department of Veterans Affairs.
The report, based on the most extensive data the department has ever collected on suicide, found that the number of suicides among veterans reached 22 a day in 2010, the most recent year available.
That was up by 22 percent from 2007, when the daily number was 18. But it is only 10 percent higher than in 1999, according to the report. Department officials described the numbers as “relatively stable" over the decade.
In the same 12-year period, the total number of U.S. suicides rose steadily to an estimated 105 a day in 2010, up from 80 in 1999, a 31 percent increase.
As a result, the percentage of the nation’s daily suicides committed by veterans declined to 21 percent in 2010, from 25 percent in 1999.
“What’s happening with veterans is a reflection of what’s happening to America," said Jan Kemp, the national mental health director for suicide prevention at the VA. “The suicide rate in America has been creeping up."
Kemp said the fact that veterans accounted for a smaller percentage of the nation’s suicides suggested that improved outreach and suicide prevention programs might have had an effect.
But other experts said that for a variety of reasons — including many veterans having access to health care through the department — the suicide rate for veterans should be much lower than it is.
“This remains a crisis," said Paul Sullivan, a founder of Veterans for Common Sense.
The new report does not provide a suicide rate for veterans, because the department is still refining that number, Kemp said. But she acknowledged that the rate is higher than for the general population, which is 12.4 suicides per 100,000 people.
Past reports on suicide among veterans have been based on data collected by the federal government from only about a third of the states. But because of growing concerns about veteran suicide, the department asked every state to provide data on veterans.
The new report is based on a database built from information on more than 147,000 suicides in 21 states, a large enough number to develop accurate estimates for the entire veteran population, department officials said. Kemp added that the department now had data from 40 states and tentative agreements to receive information from the remaining 10.
Among the report’s other important findings was that male veterans who commit suicide tend to be older than nonveteran male suicides, with the largest number of veterans’ suicides occurring among men between 50 and 59. Kemp said the department intended to increase outreach to that age group.
At the same time, the new data suggested that veterans younger than 30 are committing suicide in smaller numbers than their nonveteran peers. That would seem to contradict theories that the recent wars have contributed to increased suicide among new veterans.
Somewhat surprisingly, the study confirmed an estimate first reported in 2008 that 18 veterans commit suicide each day. That figure had been viewed skeptically by many experts because it was not based on detailed data. But the new, more comprehensive data resulted in the same estimate.
Still, “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 did the study.
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 nonveteran peers.