It seems that everywhere you turn, charities and organizations that are formed to help combat veteran suicide use some derivative of the same statistic in their name or mission/vision statements. At IFHP, we use it in our ENDING 22 Collection: “22 US Armed Forces veterans commit suicide each day.”
But where did this “22 statistic" come from and what is the true meaning behind it? Instead of the typically-used byline, “the VA states that…”, we decided it was long past-due to bring you the actual source of the information.
Where does the 22 statistic come from?
The often-heard statement that, “22 veterans commit suicide each day” can be sourced from an official document titled Suicide Data Report, 2012 that details an effort initiated by the Department of Veterans Affairs in 2007 to reduce veteran suicide.
Published by Robert Bossarte, PhD and the late Janet Kemp, RN PhD, this report really dives deeply into information and statistics concerning veteran suicide using the death certificates of 21 states from 1999 to 2011 to expand upon the previously used primary data source – only those veterans who received care from the VA. We won’t go too far into either of these datasets here, but if you’re interested in the granular details, we encourage you to review the report here. What is important to ascertain from this report is the following: the 22 statistic is an estimate and is sourced from the “estimated count” and “upper limit” of the Estimated Number of Veteran Suicides and Confidence Intervals by Year for the years 2009 and 2010. This number was “calculated as the percentage of all suicides identified as ‘veterans’ multiplied by the number of suicides in the US and divided by the number of days in a year”.
This information point may very well be illuminating to some, as this statement has been seen in more places than we can probably count – and usually without sourcing. However, it is incredibly important to realize that the 22 statistic was never intended to be interpreted literally.
There is more to the report than just “22”.
With this source in-hand, we can highlight an important fact of the dataset that may not be very visible: “more than 69% of all veteran suicides within this dataset were among those aged 50 years and older”. Why exactly is this important? Quite simply, it tells us that the 22 statistic is not entirely composed of the most recent generation of veterans who have nearly all of their service experience during the Iraq and Afghanistan eras (2001 – present) – it encompasses the total population of US veterans. This does not lessen the impact of the statistic itself, in fact it does quite the opposite -- it presents an opportunity to increase the overall impact of using the 22 statistic in efforts to raise and spread awareness regarding veteran suicide prevention.
Further, this information underscores the importance of recognizing that veteran suicide is not isolated within the Iraq-Afghanistan generation, as we may have inadvertently led ourselves to believe. Why have we attributed veteran suicide so heavily to this particular timeframe? While it’s difficult to say with any real degree of certainty, it is very likely that we can say this attribution is the result of “when” the Suicide Data Report, 2012 was published – much the same way we associate post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in the military with the current Iraq-Afghanistan era due to its heavy coverage in the media during this time, despite the fact that it was recognized many years previous to these conflicts.
What does all of this mean?
Despite the fact that the 22 statistic was an estimate, its usage in information campaigns across the country to raise and spread awareness regarding veteran suicide has been incredibly effective. It has served, and will continue to serve, as a reminder that veteran suicide is both an issue that needs to be addressed, and a tragedy that needs to (and can) be prevented. As a community, we must put in the work to do so.
The most important take away from all of this is the following:
While some say that we, as a community of veterans and military supporters, are too focused on the 22 statistic, veteran suicide, and other topics such as PTSD, if we turn our backs on these numbers and facts, then we risk losing the mentality that we can and must help those veterans in need. Each of them raised their right hand in front of our nation’s flag and took an oath to support and defend the Constitution of the United States of America, and thereby fight for our continued freedoms.
They are our brothers and sisters, husbands and wives, best friends and colleagues.
We cannot turn our backs on them.
For more information:
- Janet E. Kemp, RN, Ph.D. | House Committee on Veterans Affairs
- The Truth About 22 Veteran Suicides A Day - Task & Purpose
- Iraq War Vet Derek Weida: ‘We’re Too Obsessed With This Number 22.’ - Task & Purpose
- 2019 National Veteran Suicide Prevention Annual Report
- New veteran suicide numbers raise concerns among experts hoping for positive news