President Joe Biden exaggerated both the scope of the problem of veterans suicides and his own administration’s success at reducing the totals during his State of the Union address to Congress on Tuesday evening.
The misleading comments came as the commander-in-chief pledged to bolster mental health services and financial support for veterans as part of a broader agenda of improving support services for all Americans.
After noting improvements made last year on improving benefits for veterans dealing with military toxic exposure injuries, Biden singled out Veterans Affairs Secretary Denis McDonough during his speech and praised him for work thus far to help prevent veterans facing mental health crises.
“We were losing up to 25 veterans a day on suicide,” Biden said. “Now we’re losing 17 a day to the silent scourge of suicide … more than all the people being killed in the wars.”
But those statistics don’t match annual reports from the Department of Veterans Affairs, which show a 20-year high of about 19 veteran suicides a day in 2018 (6,796 veteran suicide deaths nationwide).
The most recent statistics — from 2020 — put that figure at just under 17 a day (6,146 total deaths).
That total occurred during President Donald Trump’s last year in office. Because of a two-year lag time in compiling census data on suicides, the impact of any policies from the Biden administration is still unknown. Data on veteran suicide rates in 2021 is expected to be released later this year.
In the early 2010s, before reliable census data was made public annually by federal researchers, veterans advocates frequently cited the veterans suicide statistic of “22 a day” based off partial estimates of deaths from a small number of states.
But in recent years, VA officials have frequently sought to correct that figure, to more accurately reflect the reality of the problem and better target efforts to provide solutions.
Since 2001, the number of veterans suicides has fluctuated between 16 and 19 a day, according to VA statistics. When active duty troops and reservists are factored in, the total is about 20 a day.
Last fall, officials from America’s Warrior Partnership released a report suggesting the veterans suicide rate may be more than 40 a day, once drug overdoses and other unclassified deaths are factored in.
However, VA officials have publicly pushed back against those estimates, calling the higher figures out of step with normal data collection practices.
Officials from the White House and VA declined comment on the president’s errors in the State of the Union speech.
Biden said he was committed to pulling the number of suicides down further in coming years, to include “expanding mental health screenings, proven programs that recruit veterans to help other veterans understand what they’re going through and get them the help they need” to recover.
“We’ve got to do more,” he added.
Despite the incorrect figures, Biden received praise from a number of lawmakers and outside advocates for including the issue of veterans suicide in the national speech. Details of new VA support programs for individuals facing mental health and financial emergencies are expected to be unveiled with the president’s fiscal 2024 budget plan, due out early next month.
Veterans experiencing a mental health emergency can contact the Veteran Crisis Line at 988 or 1-800-273-8255. Select option 1 to speak with a VA staffer.
Veterans, troops or their family members can also text 838255 or visit VeteransCrisisLine.net for assistance.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.