'A preventable tragedy': Most veteran suicides involve guns, VA Secretary Robert Wilkie tells Congress

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Seventy percent of veteran deaths by suicide involve guns, Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie told Congress Wednesday.

Twenty veterans die by suicide each day and veterans are 1.5 times more likely to die by suicide than non-veterans, according to VA.

Veterans have a “special familiarity with firearms -- it’s part of their ethos,” Wilkie said during a Senate Veterans Affairs Committee hearing about veteran suicide prevention, which he called “a terrible but preventable tragedy in this country.”

Veterans are more than 20 percent more likely to die by suicide involving a gun than non-veterans. Wilkie said the VA's suicide prevention efforts will include more programs to encourage firearm safety. 

Committee Chairman Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., asked Wilkie if the rate of veteran death by suicide had changed in the last few years. Based on the most recently available data from 2016-17, Wilkie said the rate has “barely gone down” from about 22 veteran deaths by suicide daily to about 20. The previous years’ data is incomplete, however, so it’s difficult to tell if there has been a decrease.

Veterans are three times more likely to die of suicide if there is a gun in their home, Wilkie said.

The VA is working with firearms organizations to educate veterans and help them practice gun safety, Wilkie said, “to build into a veteran’s life the time and space between the impulsive thought and the final tragic act.”

That space, or any time that can be inserted between the thought and the action of harm, is critical, Wilkie said, adding that any hesitation can be the difference between life and death.

Nearly 75 percent of veterans who survived a suicide attempt said they spent less than one hour thinking about harming themselves. About 25 percent said they spent fewer than five minutes, according to the Veterans Health Administration.

The VA already has a program providing gun locks to veterans, but Wilkie told Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-N.Y. that he would be willing to work on more gun storage safety measures for guns in veterans’ homes.

Out of the more than $9 billion earmarked in the VA's 2020 budget request for mental health services, Wilkie said Wednesday that "some will be dedicated to outreach and education on firearms." 

Blumenthal said he also is working on legislation that would create emergency risk protection orders to remove firearms from people, including veterans, who are a danger to themselves or others after a court proceeding and after a warrant is issued. Wilkie told the panel that his work on the president's recently formed task force to prevent veteran suicide will include gun safety.

Wilkie said he believes one of the keys to combatting veteran deaths by suicide is openness, sharing memories of his father's time in Vietnam and after returning home. 

"No one talked about mental illness. No one talked about feelings of anxiety," Wilkie said. "This is the first step in suicide prevention -- being able to talk publicly and privately." 

And Wilkie said when it comes to gun safety in the home to prevent death by suicide, family and caregivers matter. 

"Educating family members is key" to helping veterans safely store their firearms to avoid easy access in times of crisis, he said. 

For more information on potential warning signs of suicide, click here.
If you or someone you know needs help, contact the Veteran Crisis Line 24/7 at 1-800-273-8255 (select option 1 for a VA staff member). Veterans, service members or their families also can text 838255 or go toveteranscrisisline.net.
Follow Abbie Bennett, @AbbieRBennett.