More veterans died by suicide in 2021, the first full year of the pandemic, than the year before, according to new data released Thursday by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
About 6,390 former service members took their lives in 2021, which is roughly 110 more than in 2020, the VA’s latest annual suicide prevention report found.
The suicide rate among female veterans grew by about 24%, compared to roughly 6% among male veterans, the report said.
The VA pointed to stressors felt nationwide in 2021 that are associated with heightened suicide risks, including greater financial strain, housing instability, anxiety and depression levels, health care barriers and a spike in firearm ownership.
That year, both the number and the rate of suicides among the entire U.S. population increased 4% in 2021 after two consecutive years of decline in 2019 and 2020, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said at the end of September.
Before 2021, veterans suicides had decreased two years in a row, the VA said.
There were some “anchors of hope” among veterans in 2021, the agency said. The number of veterans suicides annually dropped from about 6,700 in 2018, and suicide rates fell by about 8% for male veterans, 75 and older.
In a statement, Veterans Affairs Secretary Denis McDonough said the agency was committed to using “every tool at our disposal to prevent these tragedies.”
“There is nothing more important to VA than preventing veteran suicide — nothing,” he said.
The new figures come as the Veterans Crisis Line fields a record number of calls for help this year amid increased mental health concerns for post-9/11 veterans and service members.
The suicide hotline received more than 88,000 calls, texts and chats in March — the highest number of monthly contacts it has ever had, NBC News previously reported.
At the time, the VA said a combination of factors, including outreach campaigns and the launch of the crisis line’s new 988 phone number, most likely led more people to use the hotline. But many veterans said they believed the surge is directly related to the troubled end of the 20-year conflict in Afghanistan.
While the VA has said it does not distinguish suicides by generation, Thursday’s report showed suicide rates were highest among veterans ages 18 to 34.
VA Undersecretary for Health Dr. Shereef Elnahal said officials would do “everything in our power” to learn from the latest report and to end veterans suicides.
“We will not rest until that goal becomes a reality,” he said.
If you or someone you know is in crisis, call 988 to reach the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline. You can also call the network, previously known as the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, at 800-273-8255, text HOME to 741741 or visit SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources for additional resources.