Recent trends in the rural-urban suicide disparity among veterans using VA health care

J Behav Med. 2021 Aug;44(4):492-506. doi: 10.1007/s10865-020-00176-9. Epub 2020 Sep 11.


There is an elevated risk of suicide among people living in rural areas, and the rural-urban disparity in death by suicide is growing in the general United States population. The department of Veterans Affairs (VA) implemented programs targeting rural health in 2007 and suicide prevention in 2008. Rural-urban differences in suicide rates among VA users have not been examined since 2010. We sought to understand whether the rural-urban disparity in suicide risk among VA users decreased during a time of contemporaneous VA efforts to improve access to mental health care for rural Veterans and to improve the effectiveness of mental health services at preventing suicide. We performed a retrospective cohort study examining differences in the raw and adjusted annual suicide rate among rural and urban VA users between 2003 and 2017. All VHA users 2003-2017. Descriptive statistics are presented for all VHA users in 2017. This includes 6,120,355 unique VA users, 32.0% (n = 1,955,935) of whom lived at a rural address. Raw rates of death by suicide were higher in rural VA users than urban VA users overall (33.3 vs. 29.1 deaths per 100,000 population) and across years, but the age, sex, and race-adjusted rates converged in 2005. White VA users had over triple the rate of death by suicide as black VA users, and lived disproportionally in rural areas. The rural-urban suicide disparity among VA users persists. However, the disparity appears to be driven by differences in the racial composition of rural and urban patients, which were not accounted for in prior studies.

Keywords: Health status disparities; Rural health; Suicide; Trends; Veterans.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Delivery of Health Care
  • Humans
  • Retrospective Studies
  • Rural Population
  • Suicide Prevention*
  • United States / epidemiology
  • United States Department of Veterans Affairs
  • Urban Population
  • Veterans*