VA tracks suicides among its patients during pandemic, finds no increase

By NIKKI WENTLING | STARS AND STRIPES Published: November 12, 2020

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WASHINGTON — The Department of Veterans Affairs hasn’t found evidence that the ongoing coronavirus pandemic is leading to an increase in suicides among its patients, according to a report the agency released Thursday.  

Since the pandemic struck the United States in March, there hasn’t been an increase in suicides or suicide attempts among its patients or visits to VA emergency rooms that were related to suicide attempts, the department said. The VA could not say whether suicides had increased among veterans who were not enrolled in VA care.  

“In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, VA is monitoring trends in suicide-related behaviors,” the report states. “Thus far, findings do not indicate increases in suicide-related behavior among veterans in [VA] care.” 

The VA’s annual suicide reports typically include data on a two-year lag. Thursday’s report focused on 2018, revealing for the first time the number of suicides this year. Because of concerns regarding suicidal ideation during the coronavirus pandemic, this year’s report included preliminary information about suicides in 2020. 

In mid-March, the VA saw a decrease in emergency room visits for suicide attempts but tracked an uptick in June before visits fell again. The instances of veterans dying at VA hospitals from self-inflicted wounds also decreased in April and May.  

The department acknowledged that the information remained incomplete and would need further study as the pandemic continues to affect the country. 

As of Thursday, the VA was seeing a record-breaking number of cases, with nearly 9,000 veterans currently sick with the virus — up from 6,900 one week ago. More than 4,250 veterans have died, as well as 66 VA employees.  

The onset of the pandemic led many Americans to experience social isolation, fear, anxiety, unemployment and financial strain. Some mental health experts and veterans’ advocates worried about the effects among military members and veterans, who already experience disproportionate rates of suicide. 

In its report, the VA listed pandemic-related stressors as factors that may affect veteran suicide rates. Pandemic-related stressors were included throughout the list. The department warned of veteran unemployment during the pandemic being a potential factor in suicidal ideation, as well as increased isolation.  

Suicidal ideation among Black and Hispanic populations was noted to be significantly higher during the pandemic, according to the VA.  

The VA is encouraging veterans in crisis, or their families, to contact the Veterans Crisis Line. Dial 1-800-273-8255, and then press 1, or text the crisis line at 838255. An option to chat online is available at veteranscrisisline.net

Twitter: @nikkiwentling