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The Veterans Affairs Department needs to better understand the problem of suicide among female veterans and determine how best to treat at-risk women, according to a bill passed by the House of Representatives on Tuesday.

The Female Veterans Suicide Prevention bill, HR 2915, would require VA to identify mental health and suicide prevention programs that are most effective for women veterans, who die by suicide at six times the rate of nonveteran women.

“We can and must do more to address the epidemic of suicide among our women veterans,” bill sponsor Rep. Julia Brownley, D-Calif., said. “We know that suicide can be prevented but we need to work harder to understand the root causes.”

Male veterans die by suicide at three times the rate of women veterans, but the alarming number of deaths among women veterans when compared with civilians indicates there is more work to do, lawmakers say.

Even more alarming is the rate among young women veterans.

According to a VA report released last May, for women veterans ages 18 to 29, the risk of suicide is 12 times the rate of nonveteran women.

The report, which drew data from the VA’s Suicide Repository as well as death information from 23 states, also found that female veterans die by suicide at higher rates than civilian women because they often choose more lethal means — about 40 percent of women veterans who died between 2000 and 2010 used a gun.

More than 170,000 veterans died by suicide during the study period, with suicides among female veterans rising by 40 percent during the decade.

Brownley’s bill would require the VA to study which suicide prevention programs work best for each gender and disseminate the guidance to providers within VA.

A similar bipartisan bill was introduced in the Senate last week by Sens. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif.; Joni Ernst, R-Iowa; Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn.; and Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio.

According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, women in the general population attempt suicide at three times the rate as men but men die at rates three and half times that of women.

Drug overdosing tends to be the method of suicide more favored by civilian women, increasing the likelihood that they might be found and survive.

Veterans or family members experiencing a mental health crisis can get help by calling the Veterans Crisis Line at 800-273-8255 and pressing 1, by texting 838255 or going online at www.veteranscrisisline.net.

Patricia Kime covers military and veterans' health care and medicine for Military Times. She can be reached at pkime@militarytimes.com.

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