Military Suicides Have Spiked in Kentucky in Recent Years

Suicides among Kentucky veterans and active military service members have increased the past several years. In many cases, those who have died never sought help through the Veterans Affairs Medical Center.

“Most of the people [military service members] that kill themselves we don’t know about,” said Barbara Kaminer, Louisville’s Robley Rex VA suicide prevention coordinator.

The increase in suicides among veterans hand service members has led to legislation aimed at reducing or eliminating suicides of active service members, but the effort face challenges.

There’s no national database that tracks all active duty and veteran suicides; once a service member is discharged the government no longer keeps tabs on them.

The Department of Defense does track active military member suicides. Last year, 475 active service members committed suicide, according to the data. That’s compared to the 132 active soldiers the U.S. has lost in combat.

The University of Kentucky’s Kentucky Violent Death Reporting System has more complete figures.

In 2012, 129 active military members and veterans committed  suicide in the state. That is more than double any year from 2005 and 2009. And it’s  been increasing.

Here’s data from the Violent Death Reporting System on the number of suicides or intentional self-harm deaths of active and veteran military members in Kentucky.

graphJoseph Lord | wfpl.org

The National Violent Death Reporting System is funded by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention and is now implemented in 32 states. Until recently, states did not keep track of both active duty and retired military suicides.

There is still no nationwide database, said  Sabrina Brown, an assistant professor of epidemiology at the University of Kentucky.

“Isn’t this remarkable that we don’t collect this data?” she said.

When Kentucky first started collecting its active duty and veteran suicide data, the state relied on death scene investigations. The coroner would ultimately fill out the death certificate in the state, but depending on the death scene investigation they didn’t consistently record whether someone was a member of the military.

“So they weren’t, either, getting that information at the death scene or vital records wasn’t collecting that information,” said Brown.

But in 2010, things changed and the record keeping improved dramatically, she said, which may also account for some of the rise in numbers.

Efforts to Lower Rate

A new law authored by Sen. Joe Donnelly, Democrat from Indiana, approved by Congress Friday will require all active, reserve and guard military members to have annual mental health screenings.

This could help reach a number of active duty members who would otherwise not seek treatment or who may not understand what help or resources exist.

But the new law still leaves veterans who are discharged.

“There are many, many veterans out there who kill themselves that don’t come to the VA,” said Kaminer. “I can tell you nationally we are being told that that is the case across the board.”

Louisville VA’s suicide prevention program consists of five staff members—three social workers, a psychologist and a case manager.

Kaminer said she estimates her program flags around 25 to 35 veterans or active service members—meaning that the person has attempted, or has come close to attempting, suicide

ThIf they are discharged and flagged, they will be required to be seen on a minimum of a weekly basis, said Kaminer.

“We have a full-time social worker that does nothing but follow up home visits,” she said.

Another important part of the suicide prevention program is its outreach, said Kaminer. In some cases, volunteers and others walk the streets or try to seek out those who have either slipped through the cracks or just don’t know what services the VA provides, she said.

For example, the program includes a group that meets to talk and share their stories.

Since Louisville’s suicide prevention program started in 2007, around 3,000 military service members have been served, seen or treated, Kaminer said.

Of those, she’s aware of two deaths.

“That’s pretty amazing,” she said.

If you or a veteran or active military service member you know needs help, call the national crisis line at (800) 273-8255.

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