Commentary

Big problems require bold solutions: How data analytics can help prevent veteran suicides

We lose 20 veterans each day to suicide, with the rate growing relatively worse compared with the civilian population. These figures, provided by the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), were released before COVID-19 took hold on our daily lives. The forced isolation and loss of connectedness associated with the pandemic’s required social distancing protocols dramatically escalates this problem.

With all the resources dedicated to preventing veteran suicide over the past decade, why aren’t we making progress, and why do we accept this as an enduring fact of life?

According to the VA, of the 20 veterans who die each day, nearly two-thirds are not receiving care through the department. Identifying those most at risk is challenging due to the sensitive nature of the issue and difficulty identifying this invisible trauma. That, in essence, is the central problem.

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) reports approximately 200,000 service members transition from the military annually. The threat of suicide is at its highest point during this first year of transition to civilian life and the ability to accurately decide where to concentrate prevention resources remains limited at best. At this time, neither the Department of Defense (DoD) nor the VA have the capacity to closely monitor each transitioning service member for suicide risk.

Traditional suicide research is a “bottom up” process. Each event is dissected and thoroughly studied, with the compilation of that data scrubbed and analyzed for clues as to who may be most at risk to die by suicide. The insights gained by this research, while valuable, have not led to a reduction in the veteran suicide rate.

Big problems often require bold solutions. During my own career in and out of uniform, I was responsible for suicide prevention efforts for the Navy and later for all of DoD while serving in the Office of the Secretary of Defense. I have seen a variety of service member and veteran programs firsthand and admire immensely everyone dedicated to making a difference in this arena.

However, we must all acknowledge that the problem is getting worse. It is time to act more boldly and confront some of our fundamental notions of privacy if we are to make a difference.

It is time to switch from a “bottom up” to a “top down” approach. What exactly causes someone to despair to the point of dying by suicide is complex and unique to each individual’s circumstance. Collective thinking points to different causes — relationship, financial, or mental health issues, among others — or a combination of several. But, how do we anticipate those pressures, particularly when the majority are not under VA care?

The answer may lie in big data and analytics. Data analytics has been tried, but the breadth and depth currently available has never reached the critical mass necessary to identify possible patterns or risk factors. Such analysis requires a so-called data lake of records, including medical, law enforcement, personnel, social media, financial and purchasing information. While gathering and tailoring this data is feasible, concerns over personal privacy and requisite permissions can prevent meaningful action. But there are ways to balance privacy concerns and still improve outcomes.

After more than 10 years of using a bottom-up approach to no avail, now is the time to re-balance the scales, seek workable and reasonable privacy solutions, and dare to make a measurable difference in the veteran suicide rate. Step one is for DoD and VA to create a data lake pilot program and use commercially available analytical tools — with built-in privacy-by-design functionality — to identify patterns or risk factors for our veterans leaving active duty.

September is National Suicide Prevention Month. While we mourn those who have succumbed to this devastating disease, it’s time to tackle the problem by leveraging organizations with past performance in data analytics and epidemiology. Bold is a good place to start.

Tony Kurta is vice president for health and human performance at Leidos. A retired Navy rear admiral, Kurta previously performed the duties of under secretary of defense for personnel and readiness.

Editor’s note: This is an Op-Ed and as such, the opinions expressed are those of the author. If you would like to respond, or have an editorial of your own you would like to submit, please contact Military Times managing editor Howard Altman, haltman@militarytimes.com.

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