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Report: Veterans Commit Suicide At A Higher Rate In Western States

Department of Veterans Affairs

For the first time the U.S. Department of Veteran’s Affairs has released veteran suicide statistics by state. It shows Colorado’s rate at 47.1 per 100,000 people, while the national rate is 38. Overall, suicide rates are highest in Western states.

The data shows in 2014 in Colorado 178 veterans committed suicide. Almost all were men and more than 65 percent used a gun.

This doesn’t surprise Jarrod Hindman with the Colorado Office of Suicide Prevention at the Department of Public Health and Environment.

“Higher rates in the West are not unique to veterans,” Hindman says. “Our suicide rates in general are higher in the Rocky Mountain West. Colorado has always ranked in the top 10 for suicide death rate.”

Credit U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs
Veteran and non-veteran suicide deaths by age group for Colorado, the western region, and nationally in 2014.

He says social isolation, high gun ownership and barriers to mental health care are some of the contributing reasons -- but Hindman also thinks there’s something special to western states that’s driving up the rates.

“In the Rocky Mountain West and the Western United States we really embrace the concept of rugged individualism -- this notion that if you’re struggling with something, particularly if it’s an emotional issue, you pull yourself up by your bootstraps, you don’t ask for help, you solve your problems on your own and privately,” Hindman explains. “That can be dangerous if someone is feeling suicidal. You can’t bootstrap your way through a brain disorder.”

He says this fear of asking for help may be higher for veterans.

“We really need to change that,” says Hindman.  “If you want to be whole and healthy, not only do you have to be physically well, you have to be emotionally well.”

According to the VA data, firearms are the leading method of suicide among veterans, another finding that doesn’t shock Hindman.

“States in the U.S. that have higher in home firearm ownership rates are also states that have higher suicide rates,” he says.

Credit U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs
Suicide deaths by method for Veterans in Colorado, the western region, and nationally in 2014, as well as overall Colorado suicide deaths by method.

To combat this, the state has partnered with gun shop and firing range owners for the Colorado Gun Shop Project to raise awareness and help prevent sales to those at risk.

The documents say Montana, Utah, Nevada and New Mexico have the highest rates in the country. The data released is part of a larger VA examination into more than 55 million records spanning over 35 years. They hope to use the data to better develop suicide prevention programs.

Correction: A previous version of this story heard on air inaccurately described Colorado’s rate for veteran suicide at 47.1 percent. The rate should have been expressed as 47.1 per 100,000 people.

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