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Topping Donald Trump’s 10-point plan to help U.S. military veterans is a pledge to improve their mental health services.
"A shocking 20 veterans are committing suicide each and every day, especially our older veterans," the presumptive GOP presidential nominee said during a July 11 speech in Virginia Beach, where he excoriated the Department of Veterans Affairs and laid out reforms.
We wondered whether Trump’s sad suicide number is correct. His campaign pointed us to research the VA released on July 7 in advance of the agency’s planned publication this month of its most comprehensive report yet on veteran suicides.
The VA examined about 55 million veterans records from 1979 through 2014. It found that in 2014, the latest year for which figures are available, that 7,403 veterans took their own lives, or an average of about 20 veterans a day.
The count updates a much-cited VA estimate that an average of 22 veterans killed themselves each day in 2010. The VA always acknowledged that this old study was limited, because it was based on veterans living in only 21 states. Notably absent were California and Texas - two states with very high veteran populations.
The new figure of 20 veteran suicides a day is based on records from every state.
The VA said that 65 percent of veterans who took their own lives in 2014 were 50 or older, a finding that jibes with Trump’s statement that the daily suicides especially pertained to "older veterans." For context, it should be noted that 75 percent of the nation’s veterans are 50 or older.
On the other hand, the VA found that younger veterans had the highest rate of suicides. Those ages 18 to 29 had a suicide rate of 77 per 100,000 in 2014. Veterans ages 50 to 59, by comparison, had a rate of 39 per 100,000.
In all age groups, the VA found that the percentage of veterans who take their lives was substantially higher than that of adults who never served in the military. The rate for non-veterans ages 18 to 29, for example, was 12.8 per 100,000. The rate for non-vets ages 50 to 59 was 18.6 per 100,000.
The 2014 suicide rate for all veterans was 35.3 per 100,000; the rate for all adult non-vets was 15.2 per 100,000. After adjusting for differences in age and gender, the VA concluded that veterans have a 21 percent higher risk of suicide than non-serving adults.
Is the situation improving?
During a July 7 news conference, VA officials were asked whether their research shows that there has been improvement in the veteran suicide problem, since the updated number, 20 deaths a day, was lower than the previous estimate of 22. David Shulkin, the VA’s undersecretary for health, said the department doesn’t view the new number as a sign of progress.
Shulkin said the average number of daily suicides may decreasing because the aging population of veterans also is waning. He stressed, however, that the suicide rate for veterans was rising.
VA figures show that the veterans suicide rate actually has increased 32 percent since 2001. That compares with a 23 percent increase in the rate for non-vets during the same period.
According to the new report, the suicide rate among veterans who used VA services increased 8.8 percent since 2001, while the rate among veterans who didn’t use those services increased 38.6 percent.
Critics have said focusing on the daily number of veteran suicides is pointless and that attention should be fixed on examining the veteran suicide rate and how it compares with the rest of the country.
Shulkin, during the news conference, said the daily suicide rate figure has become so "ingrained" in public conversation that the VA decided to recalculate it to ensure it’s correct.
Trump said, "A shocking 20 veterans are committing suicide each and every day, especially our older veterans." His claim is supported by recent research by the VA and we rate the statement True.
Donald Trump’s comments at Virginia Beach rally, July 11, 2016.
Department of Veterans’ Affairs, "VA conducts nation’s largest analysis of veterans suicide," July 7, 2016.
Department of Veterans Affairs, "Facts about veterans suicide," July 2016.
Email from Donald Trump campaign press office, July 13, 2016.
Emails from Alan Greilsamer, spokesman for the Department of Veterans Affairs, July 13, 2016.
Interview with Alan Greilsamer, July 13, 2016.
Transcript of VA news conference about veteran suicides, July 7, 2016.
PolitiFact Georgia, "Rate, not just number, helps explain vet suicide risk," Feb. 27, 2015.
PolitiFact Georgia, "Not all veterans suicides can be tied to VA care," June 6, 2014.
Department of Veterans Affairs, "Suicide data report," 2012.
National Public Radio, "The number 22: Is there a ‘false narrative’ for veteran suicide?" Oct. 1, 2015.
Washington Post Fact Checker, "The missing context behind the widely-cited statistic that there are 22 veteran suicides a day," Feb. 4, 2015.
Military Times, "New VA study finds 20 veterans commit suicide each day," July 7, 2016.
Wall Street Journal, "U.S. veterans commit suicide at rate of 20 a day," July 7, 2016.
ABC News, "VA releases results of largest analysis of veterans suicide rates," July 7, 2016.
USA Today, "20 veterans a day committed suicide in 2014, new data show," July 7, 2016.
New York Times, "Suicide rate among young veterans has risen sharply since 2001," July 7, 2016.
Washington Post Fact Checker, "Trump correctly uses new statistic that there are 20 veteran suicides a day," July 13, 2016.
Congressional Research Service Report, "Who is a veteran? -- Basic eligibility for veterans benefits," May 25, 2016.
Richmond Times-Dispatch, "In Virginia Beach, Trump calls himself the ‘law and order candidates,’" July 11, 2016.
Annals of Epidemiology, "Suicide risk among 1.3 million veterans who were on active duty during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars," February 2015.
U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, Age/gender population of veterans during FY 2014, assessed July 13, 2016.
Centers for Disease Control, "Increase in suicides in the United States, 1999-2014," April 2016.
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