City Council Examines Increase in Suicide Rates for Vets

The Committee on Veterans held a joint session Tuesday with the Committee on Mental Health, Mental Retardation, Alcoholism, Drug Abuse and Disability Services, to look into the disturbing rise in the number of veterans committing suicide.

In a 2011 study, the University of Utah found that "college students who served in the military have a suicide attempt rate six times higher than the average college student." In 2010, a fifth of all suicide deaths in America were veterans, with young veterans particularly at risk.

There are currently more than 1.3 million veterans living in the New York City area, and that number is expected to grow as thousands of veterans return from Iraq and Afghanistan. Veteran and mental health advocates are increasingly concerned that these Vets will need extensive support from mental health services. Councilmen and advocates testifying at the hearing Tuesday seemed to agree that services currently on offer to veterans were not sufficient to tackle this growing problem.

Council Speaker Christine Quinn attended the meeting and made an impassioned plea for greater preparedness to ease the suffering of the city's veterans. "The point of this meeting is really that we all have been unprepared," Quinn said. "And the only way we will get prepared, is if we admit we are unprepared."

The Council heard testimony from veteran and mental health advocates from the five boroughs, but progress was hampered by a lack of data on veteran suicides in New York City.

Commissioner Terrance Holliday of the Mayor's Office for Veteran Affairs (MOVA) was aware of 2 or 3 suicides in New York since the start of 2011, but he was unable to confirm numbers. The Committee noted that the work of MOVA is constrained by a limited budget and a staff of only four.

Advocates testifying at the hearing also put forward ideas for greater outreach to military leadership to address the problems faced by members of the National Guard and Army Reserve, in particular, when they return from service.

The Committee plans to hold a second hearing on October 26, when advocates will report on data gathered in the interim and on plans for more effective outreach to veterans.