VA '100%' Confident in Suicide Data After Outside Report Argued Agency Underestimates Rate

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Suicide Awareness Month banner.
Personnel Specialist 2nd Class Kylaya Mannings (right) and Boatswain’s Mate 2nd Class Sebastian Castano raise a banner for Suicide Awareness Month at Mayport Memorial Park, Sept. 10, 2019. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Alana Langdon)

Department of Veterans Affairs officials pushed back Thursday against a recent outside report that concluded the department is significantly undercounting veterans suicide deaths in its own annual suicide reports.

"I do not agree with that report," Tamara Campbell, the acting executive director for the Office of Mental Health and Suicide Prevention, said at a House Veterans Affairs Committee. "Our report is evidence-based scientific rigor."

At issue is an analysis released earlier this month by America's Warrior Partnership, a suicide prevention group, that said the veterans suicide rate may be more than double VA's official estimate when accounting for death certificate and records errors, accidental drug overdoses and unexplained deaths.

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Researchers for the group estimated about 24 former service members die by suicide each day. Another 20 die from accidents, accidental overdoses or undetermined causes, categories the report said fall under self-injury deaths.

That's compared to the VA's annual report, released days after the America's Warrior Partnership analysis, that found an average of 16.8 veterans died by suicide a day in 2020. The 2020 veterans suicide rate was down by nearly 10% from a peak in 2018 and the lowest level since 2006, according to the VA.

At Thursday's hearing, VA officials suggested that counting accidental overdose deaths as suicides could be problematic because it could lead to the wrong treatment, though they acknowledged both issues often "travel together."

"It is difficult to identify which one is happening at times, and at times people need different interventions specifically," said Lisa Brenner, a clinical research psychologist and director at the VA's Rocky Mountain Mental Illness Research Education and Clinical Center.

Matthew Miller, the VA's national director of suicide prevention, also stressed the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has "significant concerns" with grouping overdose deaths and suicides together, eliciting some criticism from a Republican lawmaker.

"Color me a little skeptical when listening to what the CDC or [National Institutes of Health] put out lately," said Rep. Chip Roy, R-Texas, who has fought against federal health officials' guidance on COVID-19.

VA officials also took issue with the America Warrior Partnership's report categorization of "former service member," which Miller argued was ill-defined compared with the VA's definition of "veteran."

"As a veteran myself sitting before you and a subject matter expert in public health and mental health, I would not be sitting in front of you if I did not have 100% confidence in the data that we present on an annual basis," Miller said.

Testifying on a separate witness panel at the same hearing, Jim Lorraine, the CEO for America's Warrior Partnership, said the report's inclusion of overdose and other accidental deaths was not meant to "couple them together" with suicide, but rather to "demonstrate the extent" of preventable deaths.

Lorraine also dinged the VA for not being more transparent with its own methodology.

"The VA must be more open and transparent about their data and share it with researchers as mandated by Congress," he testified. "The VA's numbers and methods and how they are used is not clear, and the VA has not been open in sharing this data despite repeated efforts from other organizations and ourselves."

Veterans and service members experiencing a mental health emergency can contact the Veteran Crisis Line at 988, Press 1. They also can text 838255 or chat online at VeteransCrisisLine.net.

-- Rebecca Kheel can be reached at rebecca.kheel@military.com. Follow her on Twitter @reporterkheel.

Related: VA Says Veteran Suicides Continue to Fall, But Outside Researchers Find Rates May Be Much Higher

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