The Veterans Affairs Department expects to have data this summer that could erase the questionable statistic that 22 veterans die by suicide each day.
Dr. Maureen McCarthy, a VA assistant deputy undersecretary, told the House Veterans' Affairs Committee on Thursday that the department has received statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and the Defense Department that should provide VA a clearer picture of the number of suicides among veterans.
VA analysts are poring over death records for all personnel who served from 1979 to 2015, according to McCarthy.
"This is very different from what we did in the past when we had to get data from the states, and some states gave us data and some did not. We are really excited because … [this data] crosses ages and sex and all other risk factors we want to be able to identify," McCarthy said.
But the number-crunching and confirmations are taking time, she added.
"We so wanted to have this information to you by this hearing. We don't," she said.
The "22 veterans a day commit suicide" statistic, widely used by veterans service organizations, the media and others, comes from a 2012 report produced by the VA that extrapolated an estimate from data provided by 21 states from 1999 to 2011.
The calculation did not include a number of states with high veterans populations, like California, Texas, Arizona and North Carolina, and did not account for deaths that may have been suicides but were not indicated on death certificates.
A more recent VA study of post-9/11 combat veterans found that 1,868 veterans died by suicide, from 2001 to 2009, fewer than one a day.
The data is needed, VA officials say, to help the department target its suicide prevention efforts to specific populations.
"And we want to make this data available to our academic partners so they can help us as well," McCarthy said.
Panel members said the VA has made progress expanding its mental health services and suicide prevention initiatives for veterans but needs to move more quickly, starting with a program that lets troubled veterans who call a participating VA medical center to press "1" if they need to reach the VA Crisis Line instead of having to listen to the department prompts for the facility before being told to hang up and dial the suicide hotline.
Currently, the service is available at 12 VA medical centers.
"That's all? This is something that should be fixed, automatically, without taking a year to do it," said Rep. Dan Benishek, R- Mich.
Veterans advocates also urged VA for better data, calling the "22 veterans a day" phrase harmful.
"There's a need for us to change the messaging around suicide," said Kim Ruocco, Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors suicide prevention officer. "We had a veteran about five months ago who left a suicide note that said 'I'm going to be one of the 22 today, why should I even try?' Having a negative message out there, that suicide is an epidemic, is increasing hopelessness in the veteran population."
In the past few years, VA has hired 5,300 mental health providers and support personnel and 932 peer specialists — veterans who trained to work with veterans seeking counseling and mental health services.
It also has upgraded its Veterans Crisis Line and elevated the profile of its suicide prevention office within the department, and it has launched several partnerships with community health providers to offer counseling to veterans.
But it's still not enough, said Rep. Corrine Brown, D-Fla. In a rare admonishment of the VA, the congresswoman said she doesn't understand why suicide prevention is not a major initiative in the department's current reform efforts.
"Reducing suicide is not included. Given that suicide nationally is considered by some to be a public health problem, I believe suicide prevention should be the number one MyVA priority," Brown said.
Suicidal troops and veterans can call the Veterans Crisis Line, 800-273-8255, press 1, for assistance. Help also is available online at www.militarycrisisline.net or by text, 838255.
Patricia Kime covers military and veterans health care and medicine for Military Times. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Patricia Kime is a senior writer covering military and veterans health care, medicine and personnel issues.