Texas has a high suicide rate among veterans. What is being done to help?

As local mental health agencies work to improve access to treatment for Texas veterans, the suicide rate of Texas veterans remains significantly higher than the rate for the general population.

Texas is home to the second-largest veteran population in the United States, and according to the US Census Bureau, over 10% of the state’s veterans live in Harris County. Texas also has the third largest active military population.

In 2020, the suicide rate for Texas veterans was higher than the suicide rate for national veterans — Texas had a suicide rate of 36.6 per 100,000 veterans, while the national rate was 34.4, according to U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs data. Meanwhile, the suicide rate for the general Texas population remained much lower at 13.3 per 100,000 people.

Veteran suicides in Texas accounted for nearly 8% of all U.S. veteran suicides over the past two decades and ranks third among all states. From 2001 to 2020, a period spanning the US invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, 9,551 of the 126,796 veterans who died by suicide were in Texas. California and Florida had the most veteran suicides.

There is evidence that exposure to various types of trauma — including military sexual trauma and combat trauma — and traumatic brain injury may contribute to higher suicide rates in the veteran population. According to a 2020 report by the Traumatic Brain Injury Center of Excellence, which tracks traumatic brain injuries in U.S. service members, service members suffered 434,618 traumatic brain injuries worldwide between 2000 and 2020.

Age is another factor affecting suicide rates among veterans, with the highest rates being among those aged 18-34.

Difficulty reintegrating into civilian life after military service also plays a role in suicide rates among veterans. According to a 2022 United States Department of Veterans Affairs report, the suicide rate in the first year of separation from military service for veterans who left the military in 2019 was 47.8 per 100,000 people, while the 2020 suicide rate for all veterans was 31 .7 was.

Local efforts to reduce veteran suicides

Because of Harris County’s large veteran population — the fourth highest in the United States — Houston was selected as one of the first seven cities to compete in the 2018 Mayor’s Challenge. The Challenge is a joint effort by the US Department of Veterans Affairs and Substance Abuse and the Mental Health Services Administration to reduce suicides among veterans and their families.

The challenge connects the local health authority, the Harris Center, directly with the Houston VA to create a focused approach to veteran care in the community. Sarah Strang, the director of the Mobile Crisis Outreach Team at the Harris Center, said one of the first things the two agencies did was reach an agreement to coordinate care, giving them more efficient care when responding to mental health crises allow veterans.

Crisis hotlines:

Harris Center 24-hour emergency line:
713-970-7000 option 1

Suicide and crisis hotline of the National Suicide Prevention:
Press 9-8-8 then 1 for veterans

Veteran Counseling Services:

Trauma and Resiliency Center of Houston (offers free counseling to uninsured and underinsured veterans): https://med.uth.edu/psychiatry/research/centers/trauma-and-resilience-center/
Phone: (713) 486-2630.

Easter Seals (provide counseling for veterans and their family members): https://eastersealshouston.org/
Phone: (713) 838-9050

The Harris Center
Website: https://www.theharriscenter.org/
Telephone: 713-970-7000
The emotional support text line: 832-479-2135
24-hour emergency line: 713-970-7000, option 1

VA Eligibility:

To review VA benefits and eligibility:
https://www.va.gov/health-care/eligibility/

Health Eligibility Center Registration and Eligibility Division:
1-855-488-8440

Other Resources:

Harris County Veterans Service Department (assists veterans in finding resources):
https://www.harrisvets.com/

Combined Arms (connects veterans and their families to resources and organizations through an online profile):
https://www.combinedarms.us/


Practically, Strang said, the agreement makes it easier for local authorities to refer patients between the two providers.

“We are contacting them immediately after receiving this recommendation,” Strange said. “We’re trying to get out there and we’re going to make at least one in-person attempt within eight hours or less.”

Elizabeth Kleeman, the Houston VA mental health care special programs coordinator, said the Mayor’s Challenge program is now focused on three main priorities to address veteran suicides locally:

  • identifying veterans in the community and screening for suicide,
  • promote connection and

  • Securing firearms and reducing access to lethal means.

Kleeman said she keeps certain questions at the forefront as she works toward those goals: “Let’s speak openly as a community and create an environment where people can identify and speak freely about their suicide risk,” Kleeman said. “But also their commitment to mental health care, their compliance and adherence to medication?”

Kleeman said celebrating the achievements of those seeking help and treatment is one way the community can help veterans and others contemplating suicide feel more connected. For family members and friends, Kleeman said, it’s crucial to educate themselves about the signs of a mental health crisis and suicidal thoughts, and to get comfortable asking loved ones if they’re considering suicide.

Kleeman acknowledges that for many people, speaking openly about suicide and mental health can be uncomfortable and scary, but the most important thing is not to judge. If that’s too daunting, Kleeman said, you can always call the crisis hotline at 9-8-8.

“Sometimes people need someone to speak up on their behalf or for them,” Kleeman said.

Firearms and Veterans’ Deaths by Suicide

Although firearms are the most common method of suicide in the United States for both veterans and the general population, firearms account for a larger proportion of suicide deaths in the veteran population. Firearms were involved in nearly 70% of veteran suicide deaths in 2020, compared to 53% in the general population.

“Firearms are something that all veterans are familiar with because they’ve all been trained to use them,” Kleeman said. “So clearly there is an article about accessing and being in a vulnerable place that makes this a very delicate situation.”

Due to the prevalence of guns in veteran suicides, the VA is offering a gun ban program to create more distance between veterans who may be struggling with mental health issues and access to their guns.

Veterans and their family members can obtain free cable gun locks — which run through the gun’s chamber and lock at the bottom with a key — through the suicide prevention coordinator at their local VA. In Harris County, locks are also available through the Harris Center.

Kleeman said the guide to using the locks is very person dependent, but the name of the game is time and distance. Some veterans are willing to give the key to a trusted person in their life, while others are willing to give them the whole gun.

Still, Kleeman viewed a customer who was only willing to store the key in his attic as a win as well.

“I was like, ‘I’ll take it,'” Kleeman said. “Because it takes a lot longer to think about going upstairs and getting it out, and during that time other behavior is possible, e.g. B. calling the crisis hotline or contacting a family member or friend.”

The Harris Center gives away approximately 500 gun locks to the veteran community and their families every six months.

The Harris Center gives away approximately 500 gun locks to the veteran community and their families every six months.

Image courtesy of Photo/Harris Center

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