Inside The Quest To Prevent Suicides Through Better Data

Sean Lyngaas | FCW | December 23, 2014

Something as impersonal and mundane as incomplete datasets could be exacerbating a national tragedy: the suicides of thousands of veterans and hundreds of active-duty service members every year.  Preventing such suicides depends in part on the quality of the government's data on potential contributing factors such as mental health and disciplinary history. Officials at the departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs have underlined that point by making improved data management one of the bedrocks of their suicide-prevention strategies in recent years.

Interviews with DOD and VA officials reveal a joint data policy to track suicides that is gradually getting off the ground and overcoming bureaucratic inertia. At the same time, however, a recent report by DOD's inspector general revealed that the information in the department's main collection system for suicide data -- recent improvements notwithstanding -- is often incomplete. The IG investigation, published last month, made clear the potential consequences of flawed reporting of suicides and called inadequate suicide-prevention programs "a substantial and specific danger to public health and safety."

The technology at issue is a DOD-wide database created in 2008 for reporting service-member suicides and suicide attempts: the DOD Suicide Event Report (DODSER). Information on those deaths is gathered via a report and used by military officials to try to make the next suicide less likely. The data includes medical history, military history (such as demotions, disciplinary cases and deployments) and demographic data. The report also covers contextual details such as where and in what environment the suicide took place...