BY ANDREW HOWARD/CRONKITE NEWS | FEBRUARY 11, 2019 AT 4:21 AM
WASHINGTON – Arizona was one of seven states that met with federal officials and veterans groups in Washington last week to map out a strategy for reversing the complex problem of suicides among vets.
The problem is real in Arizona, which had the sixth-highest veteran suicide rate in the nation in 2016, due in part to the state’s aging veteran population and the wide-open spaces that make access to behavioral services difficult.
“That’s just terrible,” said Wanda Wright, director of the Arizona Department of Veterans’ Services. “And being in the position I’m in, I felt like I had some influence on that.”
Wright was in Washington as part of the inaugural Governors Challenge to Prevent Suicide Among Service Members, a joint effort by the departments of Veterans Affairs and of Health and Human Services. Health care experts, veterans and state and federal officials collaborated for three days to find local solutions to the ever-climbing veteran suicide rate.
In 2016, the most recent year for which the VA has reported data, veterans were committing suicide at a rate of 30.1 deaths per 100,000 vets, compared to an overall national rate of 17.5 suicides per 100,000 people. The numbers were sharply higher in Arizona, with an overall rate of 23.4 suicides per 100,000 and a vets’ rate of 44.1.
The Arizona Violent Death Reporting System claimed an even higher veteran suicide rate of 54.8 per 100,000 in 2016. It said the rates ranged from a high of 90.9 in Mohave County to 39.1 in La Paz County.
Arizona officials at the Washington meeting pointed to several factors driving the state’s high veteran suicide rate.
“We tried to make a correlation between how veterans were dying,” and what officials could do to address that, Wright said. “What we found is that older veterans that have access to firearms – that are in isolated places – they have a higher risk for suicide.”
And residents of rural areas face a lack of access to health care – or to reliable Internet that could bring care to them, experts said. That makes it harder for veterans in rural areas to get treatment during the transition from deployment to home life.
Getting health care providers to rural areas is difficult, said Jill Bullock from the University of Arizona’s Center for Rural Health.
“If you tend to grow your own providers, they come back, but that is not always the case,” Bullock said. “It’s harder to train and get your residency programs out to the rural areas because you don’t have the patient volume that you do in the urban areas to get all of your … requirements.”
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