A new survey of post-9/11 veterans finds an increase over a previous study in the number who contemplated suicide since joining the service and a belief among this group that the Veterans Affairs and Defense departments aren't doing enough to address the problem.
A majority of these former service members also say DoD and VA are not adequately addressing mental health injuries, with 80 percent believing their peers aren't getting the care they need.
The findings, from a survey of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America members, are troubling given the number of programs and initiatives launched by the Pentagon and VA to encourage mental health treatment and reduce suicides, according to veterans advocates.
"It shows that mental health challenges and access to care continue to impact veterans in all facets of their lives," IAVA CEO Paul Reickhoff said in a release accompanying the survey results.
The poll of 3,000-plus IAVA members is not representative of all post-9/11 veterans, but it is one of the largest surveys available of this population, according to IAVA research director Jackie Maffucci.
The survey found that 40 percent of veterans polled had considered suicide at least once after they joined the military, up from 30 percent in 2014, and roughly a third said the VA and DoD are not being proactive in addressing the problem.
Nearly 60 percent said they have a service-connected mental health condition, and, on a positive note, 82 percent were receiving treatment, with more than three-quarters getting their care at the VA.
Nearly 60 percent said a family or friend suggested they seek mental health treatment and 77 percent said they sought help because of these suggestions.
The VA does not have exact figures for the number of post-9/11 veterans who have died by suicide. A 2012 VA report estimated that an average of 22 veterans commit suicide each day but that number, which encompasses all generations of veterans, was derived from incomplete death reports.
VA officials have said they expect to have more firm data this summer, when the department completes its analysis of death records from the DoD and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Phillip Carter, director of the Military, Veterans and Society Program at the Center for a New American Security, called the lack of information on veterans suicide "scientific malpractice," given the amount of information gathered on individual troops and veterans.
He said the information is key to understanding the scope of the problem in this population and addressing it.
"We ought to know this. We ought to be forcing the DoD and VA and the academic sector to get this right," Carter said during a panel discussion on the survey results.
According to the poll, more than three-quarters who responded said they have post-traumatic stress and only a third say their health is as good now as it was before they joined the military.
Maffucci said this should be a wake-up call for the VA and veterans groups as they plan care for this aging population.
"The thing we are most worried about is what happens in decade, two decades, three decades from now. We don't know what these injuries are going to look like then and what the resources will be," Maffucci said.
The annual survey this year also polled members on a variety of current topics, including their thoughts on medical marijuana, environmental exposures and transgender service members.
According to the survey:
- 68 percent support legalization of medical marijuana in their states and 75 percent believe VA should allow it as a treatment where applicable;
- 74 percent said they were exposed to burn pits during deployment and 60 percent say they have associated symptoms;
- Nearly half said that allowing openly transgender individuals to serve will have a negative affect on readiness.
The survey also asked the veterans about gun ownership, and according to the results, 57 percent own a firearm, with just over half storing them locked, unloaded and without the ammunition. Nearly 20 percent said they store their guns unlocked and loaded.
"This is a taboo topic that no one wants to address but it's a really important," Maffucci said. "In the veteran community, men and women are dying by suicide by firearms. In the civilian community, men are dying by firearms and for women, it's different. This is vital information for [mental health professionals] working with these people."
According to Maffucci, IAVA uses its survey results to steer policy goals in the coming year.
Patricia Kime covers military 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.