Tester Statement Following Reported Increase in Veteran Suicides Nationwide
Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Jon Tester issued the following statement today after the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) released its National Veteran Suicide Prevention Annual Report, revealing an increase in veteran suicides from 2020 to 2021:
“The epidemic of suicide continues to do irreparable damage to families in rural America and nationwide. I’m disheartened to see the recent increase in the number of veterans lost to suicide during the COVID pandemic, after prior progress to bring this number down. When it comes to our veterans, we’ve got to do better. That starts with making sure we get as many veterans as possible enrolled in the VA system to keep them from slipping through the cracks, so we can connect them with the life-saving tools and support they need and have earned.”
VA’s report shows 6,392 veterans died by suicide in 2021. After accounting for updates to last year’s reported data, it was determined this was 114 more veteran deaths by suicide than in 2020. Additionally, 42% of veterans who died by suicide in 2021 had no contact with the Veterans Health Administration (VHA) and were not receiving VA benefits. 62% of veterans who died by suicide in 2021 did not have a recent VHA health care encounter.
The number of non-veteran suicides nationwide also increased to 40,020 in 2021, which is 2,000 more than in 2020. 2021 was the first full year of the COVID-19 pandemic, and these trends reflect the struggles veterans and all Americans faced during this period, including with obtaining health care, increased rates of mental health conditions, and financial and housing instability. Last year’s report, which provided suicide mortality data for 2020, revealed the suicide rate declined for the second year in a row— decreasing by 9.7 percent from 2018 to 2020.
VA’s report found the number of veteran suicides in Montana decreased by 9, in 2021. The rate of veteran suicide in Montana also decreased amid an increase in the rate and number of total suicides in Montana.
Bolstering veterans’ mental health care and ending veteran suicide is a top priority for Chairman Tester, who has been sounding the alarm to improve veterans’ access to mental health care. Earlier this month, he called on VA to expand mental health research in Montana and rural America during a hearing. He also has been leading the effort to push VA and the Department of Defense to improve servicemembers’ access to mental health care during the military to civilian transition, when servicemembers often fall through the cracks. In September, Tester also pressed VA officials to “do better” and connect more veterans with critical mental health services, and took VA to task on a recent damning VA Office of Inspector General report on the Veterans Crisis Line.
As Chairman, Tester is continuing to work to strengthen veterans’ mental health resources by spearheading the bipartisan Not Just a Number Act to require VA to take a more comprehensive look at factors that best prevent veteran suicide, and the Making Community Care Work for Veterans Act to improve veterans’ access to lifesaving residential treatment programs for mental health and substance use disorders.