Understanding and addressing veteran suicide

February 3, 2022

In 2019, Oklahoma was home to more than 260,000 veterans, making it the state with the 13th highest rate of veterans per capita. Many Oklahoma veterans have mental health challenges, sometimes because of their service and sometimes caused or worsened by factors that lead to Oklahoma’s high suicide rate overall.

This report provides a comprehensive review of veteran suicide in Oklahoma and an assessment of the mental health services and systems available to Oklahoma veterans. In it, we highlight opportunities for improving the state’s continuum of care, proposing feasible solutions and next steps.

Key Findings

  • Oklahoma veterans who die by suicide are less likely to have received mental health treatment than other Oklahomans who die by suicide. Compared to non-veterans, Oklahoma veterans had lower rates of both previous mental health treatment (25.6% vs. 30.5%) and ongoing mental health treatment (21.1% vs. 25.1%) at the time they died.
  • Risk for suicide goes undetected more often. Veterans who died by suicide were less likely than non-veterans to have recorded indications of suicide risk, including a history of suicidal ideation (14.8% vs. 17.9%) or suicidal plans and prior suicide attempts (12.7% vs. 20.2%).
  • Physical health issues were the most common predictor of veteran suicides, implicated in 41.8% of all veteran suicides. This aligns with Oklahoma’s status as the state with the highest concentration of veterans living with a service-connected disability.
  • Better geographic distribution of services is needed in Oklahoma. The United States Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) is the primary provider of healthcare for veterans in Oklahoma. However, only 20.2% of Oklahoma by geography currently has appropriate access to VA facilities, where “appropriate access” is defined by the VA standard of 30 minutes of driving.

Key Opportunities

  • Expand mental health services for veterans through promotion of integrated care and telehealth. Integrated care is beneficial in addressing the link between veterans’ physical and mental health. Telehealth can work in concert with integrated care and also provides veterans much-needed convenience and privacy.
  • Expand the veteran Transition Assistance Programs to improve veterans’ reintegration experience. This can bring more veterans into an active community early and reinforce Oklahoma’s identity as a veteran-forward state.
  • Use existing “veteran-friendly business” initiatives to create mental health support structures for veterans in the workplace. This can help improve young veterans’ experiences in the workplace and provide a natural support base for Oklahoma veterans.
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