A study showing that women veterans commit suicide at six times the rate of civilian women has prompted U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal and colleagues to propose legislation requiring the VA to develop gender-specific suicide prevention programs.
The “Female Veterans Suicide Prevention Act” would expand the Department of Veterans Affairs’ annual evaluation of mental health and suicide-prevention programs to include data specific to female veterans. The act also would require the VA to determine which programs are the most effective for female veterans.
“With suicide among women veterans happening at an alarming rate, (the proposed bill) will help save lives by ensuring VA is providing the care, counseling and outreach these veterans need,” Blumenthal said. Co-sponsors include Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-CA), Joni Ernst (R-IA), and Sherrod Brown (D-OH).
In the recent study, VA researchers tracked more than 173,000 veteran and non-veteran suicides in 23 states from 2000 to 2010, in order to compare suicide rates among different subgroups. They found that the overall rate of veteran suicides increased by about 25 percent over that 10-year period, while the non-veteran rate increased by 12 percent. Of note, while the suicide rate for female non-veterans rose 13 percent, it climbed 40 percent for female veterans.
In addition, the suicide rate for women veterans in 2010 was 34.6 per 100,000 – six times the rate (5.4) among women civilians. The difference in rates among men was smaller – 36 per 100,000 for veterans, compared to 21.4 for non-veterans.
The VA researchers said there were a number of possible factors for the higher suicide rates among veterans than civilians, including a higher incidence of adverse childhood experiences, injuries such as traumatic brain injury, and military sexual trauma among women.
The higher disparity in suicide rates between women veterans and non-veterans suggests “possible gender-based differences in the effectiveness of VA suicide prevention initiatives,” they said. “These results further support continued efforts to better understand health disparities, including suicide, among women veterans, (as well as) the most effective clinical and public health strategies to prevent suicide among this fastest-growing subgroup.”
The study also found that VA health programs seemed to help men more than women. Overall, veterans who utilized such programs were less likely to commit suicide than those who didn’t. But while the suicide risk among VA-enrolled men decreased over 10 years, there was “no meaningful change” among women veterans over time.
There are more than two million women veterans in the U.S., making them the fastest-growing population of veterans treated by the VA. While the VA has made strides to improve mental health and suicide prevention programs aimed at women, there is no gender-specific data available on the efficacy of these programs.
In Connecticut, the state legislature last year directed the state Department of Veterans’ Affairs to improve outreach and needs assessments of the more than 16,000 women veterans in the state – but no new money was allocated for the effort.
Emily Hein, a spokeswoman for the state department, said the agency has been strengthening partnerships with the VA and veterans’ service groups in an effort to improve outreach to women. Women veterans can be a “harder population to reach” than men because many of them are busy with family responsibilities or don’t reach out for help, she said.
“We’re working through partnerships to open communication” to women veterans, Hein said.
She said she was hopeful that more funding and programs would be made available at the federal level to deal with women veterans’ unique mental health and other needs.