Suicide rate for female veterans rose 24% during COVID pandemic
Stars and Stripes November 16, 2023
WASHINGTON — The rate of increase in suicides by female veterans during the COVID-19 pandemic was four times higher than for male veterans, according to a report released Thursday by the Department of Veterans Affairs.
The report found that 6,392 veterans took their lives in 2021, up 114 from the previous year. But there was a 24.1% age-adjusted increase for women veterans compared to 6.3% for men. Money problems, depression and healthcare barriers led to higher suicide rates for all veterans during the pandemic, the report found.
“The year covered by this report was the first full year of the COVID-19 pandemic, which led to greater financial strain, housing instability, anxiety, depression levels and barriers to health care,” according to the VA’s National Veteran Suicide Prevention Annual Report.
While women are the fastest growing population group in the armed forces, they represented just 17.4% of the armed services in 2021.
The overall number of suicides by gender reflects that. There were 350 suicides reported among female veterans in 2021, compared to 6,042 among men.
“We will do everything we can to learn from this report and use the findings to help save lives,” said VA Under Secretary for Health Dr. Shereef Elnahal.
The death of Kenneth Landry is among those statistics. In October 2021, Landry — a Gulf War veteran — used a firearm and died by suicide.
Kathryn Landry, his widow and a veteran, said that he was depressed and withdrawn since suffering head injuries and PTSD connected to military service. “I witnessed the rapid decline of an intelligent man,” she said.
Veterans overall have higher suicide rates than the general adult population. For men, the age-adjusted suicide rate was 43.4% higher in 2021 than for non-veterans.
Among women veterans, the difference was more profound. Female veterans had a suicide rate that was 166.1% higher compared to adult women who had never served in the military.
The report looked at 20 years of VA data on suicides, from 2001 to 2021. The report concluded that veterans using VHA care had a “less sharp rise” in suicide rates compared to those who did not receive VHA care.
Other groups the report identified as “heavily impacted” by rising suicide rates in 2021 were veterans who were homeless, American Indian, and Alaska Native, enrolled in VHA services and/or in the criminal justice system.
The unadjusted suicide rate for American Indian or Alaska Native veterans was 46% in 2021, up from 30% the previous year.
For veterans who were homeless, the unadjusted suicide rate was 38.2% higher than in 2020 — and 62.4% higher than in 2001.
The unadjusted suicide rate for those in the VA Justice Program increased 10.2% from 2020. This population spanned veterans in jails, prisons, the court system and other law enforcement settings.
In 2021, the unadjusted suicide rate for all veterans was 33.9%, up from 32.9% in 2020. The slight uptick in the rate among veterans ended two years of declines — in 2020 and 2019.
The suicide rate also rose among the non-veteran population — but at a slower pace. The number of suicides in the adult general population was 40,020, up by 2,000.
Firearms continued to be involved in most veteran suicides, rising by less than 1% from to 72% from 2020. Firearm ownership among veterans was at 45% compared to non-veterans, at 19%.
The percent of firearms used in veteran suicides rose from 71.3% to 72.2% — which represented the highest percentage on record for veterans in 20 years.
Suicide ranked 13th among causes of death for all veterans in 2021. But it was the second-leading cause of death for veterans under 45, with accidents No. 1.
Lourdes Tiglao, an Air Force veteran and executive director of the VA’s Center for Women Veterans, emphasized that it’s important to look at the variety of factors that may lead to mental health struggles.
“I’m a woman veteran who served in Afghanistan. I’ve seen the impact of war on my fellow men and women veterans in various ways. I’ve felt the toll of those years,” Tiglao said.
At the VA’s Office of Women’s Health, several initiatives are underway to improve services for women veterans at risk for suicide. Plans extend to providing gun locks at women’s health clinics, training providers in trauma-informed care training, and expanding post-partum support for mothers.
Current and former service members who have thoughts of suicide can contact local mental health hotlines or go online to veteranscrisisline.net/get-help-now/chat.