DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Suicide among veterans is 22 percent higher than for civilians of the same age, and broken out by gender, the rate is a startling 2.5 times higher for women. That's according to the latest Department of Veterans Affairs data released this month. Now, the military used to have lower rates of suicide, but as that changed about a decade ago, the VA and the Pentagon started pouring resources into studying this problem. Now that push is yielding results, including a program at the VA to predict who might be at risk and to intervene before there is a crisis. Here's more from NPR's Quil Lawrence.
QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: More than a thousand times a week all over the country, targeted veterans are answering the phone and hearing something like this.
CAITLIN THOMPSON: Your name came up as somebody who is at very high risk for suicide, and we're concerned about you.
LAWRENCE: That's Dr. Caitlin Thompson, and it's not a real call, but you get the idea. Thompson is with the Cohen Veterans Network, but she recently finished up 10 years at the VA. A lot of new thinking developed during that time, and so did predictive analytics.
THOMPSON: We're able to say, based on these variables that are thrown into this algorithm, this person is at the highest risk of suicide compared to the average veteran.
LAWRENCE: For six years, the Pentagon and VA mined their considerable data to create a program called REACH VET. It launched in April. The program relies on another conclusion from a decade of research - asking if someone is feeling suicidal does not trigger suicide attempts. So a phone call from a VA clinician can be a surprise, but one that helps a veteran recognize the gravity of their situation, says Aaron Eagan. He manages the national REACH VET program at the VA.
AARON EAGAN: We've been pleasantly surprised with how receptive veterans have been to the extra attention. The response is generally very positive.
LAWRENCE: The past decade of research has also determined that some widely used practices don't work, including no-suicide contracts, where a patient makes a pledge not to kill themselves. Something like that is on its way through Congress. It's called The Oath of Exit. Upon leaving the service, troops would swear to reach out to another vet before they harm themselves. Dr. Craig Bryan at the University of Utah says it's hard for someone who is suicidal to keep promises.
CRAIG BRYAN: The suicidal state is defined by distorted perceptions of yourself and others.
LAWRENCE: Bryan is a veteran himself. He treated combat casualties in Iraq, and he saw suicide there. He published a study this year showing that no-suicide contracts don't work. He's afraid they might even deter some vets who are suicidal from seeking help out of a sense of shame. If the oath was made in person as part of a plan for a crisis, that could be different, he says.
BRYAN: If you're going to sit down face-to-face with a friend, with a peer, someone you trust and you mentally decide I'm going to reach out to this person, that works.
LAWRENCE: The VA will have enough data by next month to see if its suicide prevention efforts are helping. But there's another conclusion from the data. So far for veterans and civilians, suicide rates are rising nationwide. Quil Lawrence, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.