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San Diego Tops The State For Veteran Suicides

The VA San Diego Healthcare System in La Jolla is shown on Nov. 15, 2018.

Photo by Megan Wood / inewsource

Above: The VA San Diego Healthcare System in La Jolla is shown on Nov. 15, 2018.

San Diego County has the highest number suicides among veterans in California, according to the latest data.

The California Department of Public Health released figures showing that San Diego County had the highest number of veteran suicides in 2017 — the most recent year the data is available.

That year, 111 veterans committed suicide in San Diego County, followed by Los Angeles County, where 93 veterans reportedly killed themselves. Los Angeles has more veterans than San Diego.

San Diego also had a higher suicide rate among veterans. Los Angeles had 30.1 per 100,000 veterans who commit suicide, while the suicide rate in San Diego County was 45 per 100,000 veterans. By comparison, the national suicide rate among veterans is considered a national crisis.

The Department of Veterans Affairs lists the national suicide rate among veterans at just under 30 per 100,000 veterans.

RELATED: VA Struggles To Unlock The Reasons Behind High Risk Of Suicide Among Older Veterans

The VA has been alarmed by the rising suicide rate among younger veterans.

Kathy Shott works with Survivors of Suicide Loss, counseling families who have dealt with suicide. She is a retired Air Force officer. Her son, Tony, was deployed to Iraq in 2010. He killed himself on Christmas Day in 2013.

Shott said she knew her son was having trouble. He was living halfway across the country. He had had a messy divorce. He was in the middle of a custody battle over his young son and it wasn’t going well.

“I know I talked to Tony all the time, but I didn’t hear the pain at that time,” she said.

She said he had just gone into the VA two days before Christmas.

“He said, 'I told them I couldn’t make it through the holidays because I was so sad,'” she said. “I said what’s going on. He says, 'Mom I’m just so sad.' And I go, buddy, everything is going to be ok. Everything is going to be ok.”

On Christmas Day in 2013, he finally returned her call and he sounded more optimistic.

“When I replay that conversation, and I have many, many times,” she said, “his very last words to me were, 'Mom, don’t ever forget how much I love you.' I didn’t hear. I heard it, but I didn’t hear it.”

Shott emphasized how difficult it can be to tell when someone is about to kill themselves, even if you know the person well. At times, military service can make people even harder to read.

“Nobody wants to go and admit I have a problem,” she said. “We need to admit we have a problem. I was hoping that it’s getting better, but there is still this stigma that if you say you have a problem then you’re not fit for military, yet we all have problems.”

She cast around for other reasons. Her son killed himself with his own firearm.

“He was constantly telling people how to use guns, safely, and then he used a gun, here in Coronado we have that ... bridge, we need to do something so it’s not accessible,” she said.

Nine veterans killed themselves by jumping off of the bridge from 2013 to 2017, according to data from the San Diego Medical Examiner.

The number is tiny compared to firearms. Of the 474 veterans who killed themselves in San Diego County over those five years, 262 of them used a gun.

Getting correct numbers on suicides among veterans can be difficult. California law is about to change to make sure everyone is being accounted for equally throughout the state, said San Diego Medical Examiner Dr. Steven Campman.

“Our numbers of veterans have gone up over these last five years. It might be because we’re accounting better. Of course, it could be that more veterans have died,” he said.

As part of the regulations, California will require listing the deceased veteran status on death certificates.

“The bill requires that the status be completed by whoever fills out the death certificate, which will mostly be the funeral home and the family. And the second part of that bill is the state will then give that info to the VA,” Campman said.

The idea is that better data will help lead to better solutions.

San Diego had the highest number of suicides, higher than Los Angeles County, which has more veterans. Experts struggle to say why.

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