WASHINGTON — The Department of Veterans Affairs has altered how it calculates the average number of veteran suicides each day, meaning the 20-per-day statistic — widely known and often cited by elected officials — has changed to 17.

The VA released its annual National Veteran Suicide Prevention Report on Friday, tracking the changes from year to year. The 2019 report includes data from 2017, the most recent available.

More veterans died by suicide in 2017 than the previous year, the report shows. There were 6,139 veteran suicide deaths in 2017, an increase of 129 from 2016.

However, the new report lists the daily average of veteran suicides at 17, down from the 20 per day reported in previous years. The VA explained that it removed servicemembers, as well as former National Guard and Reserve members who were never federally activated, from its count.

There were an average of 2.5 suicide deaths per day in 2017 among National Guard and Reserve members who were never federally activated, the report shows. The report doesn’t include active-duty servicemember suicides. The VA said in a statement the Department of Defense would publish a separate report focusing on those deaths.

“This change was necessary because these groups are unique and do not all qualify for the same benefits and services, therefore they require individualized outreach strategies,” the VA said in a statement.

It was revealed last year that the 20-per-day statistic was misunderstood and included the deaths of active-duty servicemembers and members of the Guard and Reserve, not just veterans.

At the time, Craig Bryan, a psychologist and leader of the National Center for Veterans Studies, said the distinction could help advocates in the fight against military and veteran suicide.

“The benefit of separating out subgroups is that it can help us identify higher risk subgroups of the whole, which may be able to help us determine where and how to best focus resources,” Bryan said.

The new report shows that suicide among veterans continues to be higher than the rest of the population. The suicide rate among male veterans was 1.3 times the rate for other adult men in 2017. For women, the contrast is even more stark. The rate among female veterans was 2.2 times the rate for other adult women that year.

Veterans continue to use guns more than any other means of suicide. Firearms were used in nearly 70 percent of veteran suicides in 2017. For the rest of the U.S. population, firearms were used in 48 percent of suicides.

The highest suicide rate was among younger veterans, ages 18 to 34. In 2017, there were 44.5 suicides for every 100,000 veterans in that age group.

While younger veterans account for the highest rate of suicide, older veterans had the greatest total number of suicides in 2017. Veterans ages 55 to 74 accounted for 38 percent of all veteran suicide deaths that year.

VA Secretary Robert Wilkie said the data was “an integral part of our public health approach to suicide prevention.”

A federal investigation found last year that the money and effort expended by the VA on suicide prevention outreach dropped significantly in 2017 and 2018, despite it being touted by the past two VA secretaries as their top clinical priority.

The Government Accountability Office reported in December that the VA left nearly $5 million unused in its suicide prevention outreach budget. The number of social media posts, public service announcements, billboards, and radio, bus, Facebook and print advertisements declined in 2017 and 2018.

The agency claimed there has since been significant improvements.

In June, Keita Franklin, the director of the VA’s suicide prevention office, left the agency after holding the position for nearly two years. Veterans Crisis Line Director Matt Miller took the job on an interim basis. A permanent replacement has yet to be named. Twitter: @nikkiwentling

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Nikki Wentling has worked for Stars and Stripes since 2016. She reports from Congress, the White House, the Department of Veterans Affairs and throughout the country about issues affecting veterans, service members and their families. Wentling, a graduate of the University of Kansas, previously worked at the Lawrence Journal-World and Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. The National Coalition of Homeless Veterans awarded Stars and Stripes the Meritorious Service Award in 2020 for Wentling’s reporting on homeless veterans during the coronavirus pandemic. In 2018, she was named by the nonprofit HillVets as one of the 100 most influential people in regard to veterans policymaking.

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