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Suicide Rate For Vets Twice That For Non-Veterans

Outgoing Veterans' Affairs Secretary Jim Nicholson was on Capitol Hill Tuesday. It's his final date with Congress before he leaves office next month.

Nicholson announced his resignation after public outcry over the conditions at Walter Reed Army Medical Center and at many V.A. hospitals.

A lack of mental health care has been at the fore of that debate.

Correspondent Ethan Lindsey joins us now to highlight how that's a particular concern here in Oregon, where suicide has long been a problem.

Hi Ethan.

Hi Allison.

Allison Frost: The state released its annual 'violent deaths' report yesterday, which just shocked me — Suicide rates are extremely high in the state once again. Can we connect this to today's testimony in Washington?

Ethan Lindsey: Certainly. Suicides among Oregon's male veterans was significantly higher than non-veterans.

And suicides accounted for almost a full-three quarters of all violent deaths in the state. I mean, that's five times more than homicides and murders, which is what we always hear about. Oregon, and in fact many Northwest and Mountain states, have been struggling with this problem for years.

But to me, the veterans suicide rate might have been the most startling number in the whole report - over the past 5 years, more than 46 veterans per 100,000 committed suicide. That's two times more likely than non-veterans.

But that wasn't the only shocking number really. There were a whole bunch. What jumped out to me was the high number of suicide victims who used firearms.

This is one of those statistics that conforms to gender stereotypes. It may seem shocking, but 65 percent of men used a firearm to commit suicide, compared with 30 percent of women.

50 percent of women poisoned themselves. But only 13 percent of men ingested some sort of poison.

But interestingly and perhaps surprisingly, in suicides in other parts of the country, firearms are even more likely to be used. That's according to the federal Centers for Disease Control.

Some Oregon researchers are especially interested in that, considering the rate of suicides as a whole are so much higher in this state. Especially among older people.

Allison Frost: You mention the elderly. Some might say that the high rate of suicide among them has to do with Oregon's 'Death With Dignity' law that allows assisted suicide in the state. Did the state report talk about that at all?

Ethan Lindsey: First, its important to note that the legalized deaths from that law, were not counted in the report's numbers.

But one of the most consistent patterns in this report, is that suicide rates increase with age. From basically age 15 on, the suicide rate goes up. And then rates jump dramatically after age 65.

Oregon's older adult suicide rate was 78 percent higher than the national average.

Allison Frost: So with all those issues, where do we go from here?

Ethan Lindsey: Well, this report, even though it came out yesterday - late 2007 - is a compilation of 2005's death certificates. The reason its so late is because the state is moving to a full computerized system to track this. That promises to give us a better idea where the problem areas are.

Also, the state is hoping to work with the military and veterans' offices to keep a closer eye on recently-returned vets. Currently, when we talk about veterans who commit suicide we could be talking about those who served in the first Gulf War, Vietnam, even World War Two. And so the state wants to be able to differentiate those deaths.

And finally, the root problem. Its been estimated that 90 percent of all suicides are people with mental health or substance abuse issues. And in Oregon, our number one supplier of mental health care is the prisons. State officials say we need to entirely rethink how we treat this problem.

Allison Frost: No easy answers. But maybe we can look at this more in-depth in the future. Thanks Ethan.

Ethan Lindsey: Thank you Allison.

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