Colorado’s veteran suicide rate outpaces national average, new 2019 data shows

For some, it takes weeks to access VA mental health services

By: - October 1, 2021 5:00 am
Operation Enduring Freedom

U.S. Marines with 1st Battalion 2nd Marine Regiment (1/2), Regimental Combat Team 2, move to secure a landing zone in Salaam Bazaar, Afghanistan, April 17, 2010. Marines with 1/2 were deployed in support of the International Security Assistance Force. (Carl Payne/Special to Colorado Newsline)

Newly released data shows Colorado’s veteran suicide rate continuing to outpace that of the U.S.

As in previous years, the state’s veteran suicide rate was significantly higher than the national average in 2019, according to a fact sheet published this month by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. In 2019, Colorado had a rate of 43.1 suicide deaths per 100,000 veterans.

From 2018 to 2019, the data shows, the national veteran suicide rate declined by 7.2% when accounting for changes in the population’s age and sex. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs calls this drop “unprecedented across the last 20 years.” But Colorado’s suicide rate among veterans held flat from 2018 to 2019.

Even with the decline nationally, 6,261 veterans died by suicide in 2019 alone, according to the VA’s September report. That’s an average of more than 17 deaths per day.

In 2019, 170 Colorado veterans died by suicide, according to the VA — representing nearly 1 in 7 suicide deaths in the state.

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Suicide data from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment shows a higher number — 221 — of veteran deaths in 2019. The state determines veteran status for suicide data through a question on the death certificate, answered by the deceased person’s closest relative, which asks whether the person ever served in the U.S. Armed Forces.

For both Colorado and the U.S., the 2019 suicide rates were highest for veterans ages 18 to 34, and were higher for men than women. Nationwide, white veterans had the highest unadjusted rates, followed by American Indians and Alaskan Natives, Asians, Native Hawaiians or other Pacific Islanders, and Black or African Americans. Non-Hispanic veterans had a higher suicide rate than Hispanics.

Nationwide, the unadjusted suicide rate among veterans was 31.6 per 100,000 people in 2019, according to the VA — compared with an unadjusted rate of 16.8 per 100,000 among all U.S. adults. However, these rates can’t be compared like apples to apples because of differences between the non-veteran and veteran populations in terms of age and sex.

When adjusted to account for age and sex, the U.S. veteran suicide rate of 26.9 per 100,000 people was about 52% greater than the overall rate.

Notably, the VA’s most recent veteran suicide data excludes reservists and National Guardsmen, according to a recent report released as part of the Costs of War project from Brown University’s Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs. That June report estimated that 30,177 active duty personnel and veterans who served in the post 9/11 wars have died by suicide — more than four times the number of military service members killed in war operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Long waits for mental health care

For some former service members, the VA’s resources for mental health and substance use fall short of what’s needed — putting more lives at risk.

“If a veteran, or anybody, is having an emotional trauma, breakdown … their life is in danger,” said Ted Engelmann, an Air Force veteran who served in Vietnam, and a freelance embed photographer in Iraq and Afghanistan. “It could be as bad as suicide, let’s put it that way, or the anguish that they’re going through personally is a real difficult situation.”

If you or someone you know is in a crisis, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741741. In Colorado, you can contact Colorado Crisis Services at 1-844-493-TALK (8255) or text TALK to 38255.

Engelmann, who has spent years seeking to raise awareness of the challenges faced by fellow veterans, said he recently experienced difficulty scheduling an appointment at the Rocky Mountain Regional VA Center. He was told the earliest counseling he could receive was “70 days out.”

The Veterans Health Administration’s mental health services include therapy, counseling and medication. In Colorado, average wait times for new patients seeking a mental health appointment range from six days at the Golden VA Clinic to 32 days at the La Junta VA Clinic, according to the VA’s Access to Care site.

The new-patient wait time numbers posted online refer to the time it takes between an initial appointment request and the appointment completion. These numbers represent only the average wait times for mental health appointments that were completed between Aug. 20 and Sept. 20. The wait-time clock starts on the date when the veteran’s referring provider, who is normally their primary care provider, says the veteran should be seen for mental health care, explained Brandy Morrison, spokesperson for the VA Eastern Colorado Health Care System.

Returning patients faced shorter wait times than new patients at some VA locations in Colorado, according to the Access to Care data. Historically, more than 87% of patients seen at VA facilities are returning patients, according to the Veterans Health Administration. Wait times for returning patients are calculated starting with the day that the veteran and mental health care provider agree is the next time the veteran should be seen.

In Colorado, mental health appointment wait times for returning patients ranged from one day at the Alamosa VA Clinic to 10 days at the PFC Floyd K. Lindstrom VA Clinic in Colorado Springs, according to online wait time data.

To set up a “new patient” mental health appointment for a veteran, the veteran’s primary care doctor typically places a referral, or consult, with the VA’s mental health clinic, Morrison said.

The Eastern Colorado system receives around 45 mental health consults each day, “ranging from medication management to psychotherapy services,” Morrison said in an email. As of Sept. 14, the Rocky Mountain Regional VA Medical Center in Aurora — the largest facility in the system — had more than 273 open mental health consults, she said, adding that the average length of time between when a consult is placed and an appointment completed is 51 days. But referring providers don’t always say the veteran needs to be seen right away, and there are a number of factors affecting how long it could take someone to be seen, Morrison said.

The VA does have options for same-day mental health care if the case is urgent, she said.

If a veteran would have to wait longer than three weeks for an appointment at a VA facility, the MISSION Act passed by Congress in 2018 allows them to seek care in the community from approved providers.

State focuses on El Paso County

While the VA has taken steps to make it easier for veterans to access mental health care, the problem of suicide among former service members hasn’t gone away.

State lawmakers recently passed legislation they hope will help Colorado tackle its high suicide rate among veterans.

Democratic Gov. Jared Polis signed Senate Bill 21-129 into law June 23, establishing a pilot program for veteran suicide prevention. Sponsors of SB-129 include two veterans: Senate President Leroy Garcia of Pueblo and Rep. David Ortiz of Littleton, both Democrats.

SB-129 tasks the Department of Human Services with establishing the four-year program, aimed at reducing suicide and thoughts of suicide among veterans in El Paso County, where there is a concentration of military bases and other facilities. DHS will contract with a nonprofit or educational organization to provide “no-cost, stigma-free, confidential, and effective” mental health and substance use treatment for up to 700 U.S. veterans and their families.

El Paso County was chosen because of the “grassroots work” being done by local organizations supporting veterans, as well as for the county’s high suicide rate, Garcia told Newsline in July — one veteran dies by suicide per week in El Paso County.

Garcia said he believed the state had the resources to expand the pilot suicide prevention program to other counties in the not-so-distant future.

Engelmann, who lives in Denver, said he’s frustrated by the apparent lack of adequate mental health care providers and schedulers in the federal VA system. The Department of Veterans Affairs’ 2021 budget was over $240 billion.

He pointed to Fort Drum, New York, as an example of recurring tragedy. Three 10th Mountain Division soldiers are believed to have died by suicide at the Army installation within a 48-hour period, according to Army Times.

“My concern is, where’s the financial support from Congress?” Engelmann said in an email. “How come Congress and the VA (are) not providing more staff and qualified counselors and addressing the ultimate problem: the suicide rate that we have in the military and veteran population in America?”

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Faith Miller
Faith Miller

Reporter Faith Miller covers the Colorado Legislature, immigration and other stories for Colorado Newsline.

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