Gregg Zoroya, USA TODAY
An average of 20 veterans a day committed suicide in 2014, a trend that reflects record high rates among young men fresh out of the military and growing numbers of women taking their lives, the first actual count of suicides among former service members shows.
The Department of Veterans Affairs previously had only estimated suicides, saying in 2010 there was an average of 22 a day. The 2014 data released Thursday is based on a precise tabulation of the 7,403 deaths.
David Shulkin, VA undersecretary for health, noted the slight decline from the 2010 estimate, but added, "it's still far too high."
The 2014 count is the first slice of a massive examination of 55 million veteran death records dating back to 1979. Shulkin said that a final report due in several weeks will detail more suicide trends.
The VA found the worst suicide pattern among male veterans, ages 18-29. Their suicide rate was 86 per 100,000 people, nearly four times the rate among active-duty service members last year.
By contrast, the overall U.S. suicide rate is 13 per 100,000 people, according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.
The new figures show the suicide rate among young female veterans, ages 18-29, was 33 per 100,000 — more than double the overall U.S. rate.
Shulkin said the suicide rate among all female veterans was more than double that of women who didn't serve in the military.
"It is difficult to understand why that is happening. It is one of the things that I think will become a central research question for us," he said.
Shulkin said more research is needed to determine whether women who served closer to combat or experienced sexual trauma in the military put them at greater risk of taking their own lives.
He said the VA has taken several "aggressive" steps to deal with the high suicide rates. They include adding staff to the crisis hotline for veterans (800-273-8255), identifying veterans at high risk, increasing mental health counselors and expanding mental health therapy via telephone.
In 2014, veterans accounted for 18% of all suicides in the United States, but made up only 8.5% of the population. In 2010, veterans accounted for 22% of U.S. suicides and 9.7% of the population.