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Using Big Data to Make Big Changes in Reducing Rates of Veteran Suicide

The World Health Organization (WHO) reported that in 2016, a greater number of deaths by suicide than by Parkinson’s disease, natural disasters, ovarian cancer, war, thyroid cancer, Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and opioid use disorders combined. Additionally, the VA Office of Mental Health and Suicide Prevention reports that veterans have a higher rate of suicide than non-veterans by over 150%.

To address this concerning statistic, the Friends of VA Medical Care and Health Research (FOVA) hosted a congressional briefing entitled “The Science of Veteran Suicide” on September 26, 2019 to focus on how research can be used to understand, and therefore prevent, the additional risks veterans face.

The event began with a presentation by Barbara Van Dahlen, PhD, the Executive Director of White House and Department of Veterans Affairs PREVENTS Task Force, who stated that the goal of her work is create a “roadmap” that will guide providers in preventing suicide. She encouraged everyone to “lead by example” in sharing our experiences with mental health to improve engagement in mental health programs.

The program then featured presentations by three VA scientists who are conducting research with VA funding. The first presentation, by Deborah Yurgelun-Todd, PhD, Associate Director of Salt Lake City VA Health Care System MIRECC, Department of Veterans Affairs and Professor of Psychiatry, University of Utah, who presented on the compounded interactions traumatic brain injuries can have on those with existing genetic and environmental risk factors veterans may have.

David Maron, PhD, of the Department of Veterans Affairs, Office of Mental Health then presented on his work in REACH VET, a program which employs an algorithm to find veterans who are in the top 0.1% risk for suicide. Once found, the program alerts their providers so that they can modify the care plan to address the patient’s needs. With this program, he reported that there was a remarkable reduction in all-cause mortality among veterans, and they look forward to further indicators of success.

Nate Kimbrel, PhD Co-Director of Clinical Core, Mid-Atlantic MIRECC, Department of Veterans Affairs and Associate Professor in Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Duke University School of Medicine gave the final presentation on his work in extracting information provided by the Million Veteran Program for the use of preventing suicide. By making use of genomics and AI, specific physiological metrics, such as weight, heart rate, and number of hospitalizations, as well as environmental factors such as location, can be used to predict who could be at risk for suicide. This is the largest genome wide association study of suicidal behavior to date, and will likely change the way we care for veterans.

To learn more about FOVA , please visit their website: http://www.friendsofva.org/

See our fact sheets on suicide and veterans.