Copyright © 2017 Albuquerque Journal
More than 20 percent of suicides in New Mexico in 2014 were committed by veterans of the U.S. military, according to newly released data from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
The state has one of the highest rates of veteran suicide in the country – 59.8 per 100,000 people, compared with 38.4 nationally.
According to the data, 91 New Mexican veterans committed suicide in 2014. Most of them were veterans ages 55 to 74.
Sonja Brown, acting associate director of the VA Medical Center in Albuquerque, said the majority of those suicides are by those not in the care of the VA, something VA Secretary David Shulkin has said is a nationwide trend.
“We know that of the 20 suicides a day that we reported last year (nationally), 14 are not under VA care,” Shulkin said in a news release on the data.
Brown said that means the agency needs the community’s help in meeting the problem head-on.
That may be in the form of spreading awareness of the signs of suicidal thoughts or the existence of the Veterans Crisis Hotline.
“If there’s someone who knows of a veteran that may be in crisis, we encourage them to reach out and encourage the veteran to reach out,” she said.
It should be noted that New Mexico also had the third-highest overall suicide rate in the country in 2014, according to the VA’s new data, at 27.5 deaths per 100,000 people.
The overall national suicide rate is also on the rise. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the suicide rate among all American adults increased by 24 percent between 1999 and 2014, adjusted for age.
In New Mexico, as in every state, the rate of veteran suicide was significantly higher than that of the nonveteran population.
Christina Comacho, a suicide prevention case manager at Albuquerque’s Raymond G. Murphy VA Medical Center, said New Mexico’s rural nature is a challenge for some veterans who may need help.
Lack of transportation, the ability to take time off of work, or money to afford transportation may prevent patients from reaching appointments.
“A lot of times when I’m talking to veterans, we base a game plan around that: ‘What are the barriers to you coming in?’ ” Comacho said.
States in the Western region of the country were found to have higher veteran suicide rates than others.
Rajeev Ramchand, senior behavioral scientist at RAND Corp., said in addition to the rurality of those states, the number of firearms owned there may also contribute.
“There’s even some evidence that as state firearms laws change, there’s a decrease in firearms suicide,” Ramchand said.
In New Mexico, 67 percent of veteran suicides were committed using firearms, 17 percent higher than the country as a whole.
Ramchand said the VA is making “worthwhile” efforts to educate at-risk veterans on proper firearm storage and, in some cases, encouraging them to temporarily remove them from their homes.
He also commended the VA’s efforts to increase the use of telemental health services, especially in rural areas, but said there have been legal issues involving licensure that have impeded its widespread use so far.
Opioid addiction, another issue the country and state struggle with, also has been shown to play a part in veteran suicides.
Rates of suicide are higher among VA patients diagnosed with an opioid use disorder, “comparable to rates of suicide among VHA (Veterans Health Administration) patients diagnosed with severe depression,” according to the VA’s 2016 report on veteran suicide.
The state-by-state data was released as a follow-up to that report, which examined more than 55 million records.