Oklahoma veterans and active-duty military personnel are killing themselves at twice the rate of civilians, despite increased efforts to address the problem.
The 2011 suicide rate for soldiers was about 44 per 100,000 population, according to an Oklahoma Watch analysis of Oklahoma Health Department data. This rate includes active-duty military as well as veterans from the post-9/11 wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Gulf War, Vietnam, Korea and World War II. The rate for civilians over the age of 18 was about 22 per 100,000.
In 2011, 141 of the state's 684 suicides were veterans, according to Health Department records.
The veteran suicide rate in Oklahoma is down from a peak of about 46 in 2008, but researchers said that year had increased suicides due to the Great Recession. The rate dropped to about 39 in 2009 and has since climbed back up.
The rates were calculated by analyzing death certificates, which include military status. The state doesn't differentiate between active-duty personnel and veterans, but it appears likely that most are veterans based on age groups at risk for suicide. The 2011 figures are the most recent data available that can be compared with population numbers.
The increased numbers and rates of suicides come at a time when the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has received budget increases for mental health services, and suicide risk for service members has stirred an ongoing national discussion.
The Joshua Omvig Veterans Suicide Prevention Act of 2007 aimed to lower suicides by authorizing a national campaign to increase mental health awareness, education, counseling and suicide-prevention research. The Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services recently allocated $500,000 in new funding for suicide prevention programs, including veterans outreach.
The Oklahoma suicide figures appear to track national trends. An analysis by News21, an investigative journalism program based at Arizona State University, found that veteran suicides across the United States increased from 2005 to 2011.
In 2005, the national suicide rate for veterans was about 29 per 100,000. It increased to about 34 per 100,000 in 2011. The civilian rate grew as well. On average, about one out of five suicides is a veteran.
Nailing down the reason why military service members die by suicide is difficult. A common assumption is that soldiers have been traumatized by combat experience or repeated deployments. But a recent study funded by the Department of Defense shows that combat deployment didn't have a significant impact on suicide risk. Instead, mental illnesses and alcohol and drug abuse were more common suicide indicators.
Trying to understand why a person dies by suicide is sometimes impossible, particularly if the person leaves no message behind. Family members often are left wondering whether a simple conversation or health referral would have made a difference.
Steve Buck, deputy commissioner of the state Mental Health Department, said the state has implemented what are considered to be the best strategies to prevent suicide deaths. But not every area of the state has equal access to prevention programs or methods.
Some areas might have access to community health clinics staffed by mental health professionals, while others might have access to family doctors trained in identifying symptoms of potential suicide victims, Buck said.
Buck said he was confident the state could get the numbers down, but doing so would require more money to spread effective treatments to every part of the state. It also would require greater public education to reduce the stigma of talking about and treating mental illness and suicide.
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