'Remembering the Lost:’ Using Data to Prevent Veteran Deaths by Suicide in Wisconsin

September 28, 2020 Posted by AHW Endowment


Each day across the United States, an average of 20 veterans or active military members die by suicide. In Wisconsin, the most recent report on the impact of suicide found that from 2013 to 2017, veterans accounted for almost one out of every five suicide deaths.

“It’s a significant number – and we know that there may be even more deaths by suicide of people with prior military experience that the data we have isn’t capturing,” said Brian Michel, director of prevention services at Mental Health America of Wisconsin and program director of the R&R House, a peer-run respite for veterans that will open this fall.

For Michel and his colleagues working in prevention, good data is critical, helping to produce a comprehensive picture of an issue and identifying where to take action.

“We really need to better quantify and describe the burden of veteran suicide in Wisconsin,” said Sara Kohlbeck, assistant director of the Medical College of Wisconsin’s (MCW) Comprehensive Injury Center, and one of the lead epidemiologists on the recently published “Suicide in Wisconsin: Impact and Response” report released by the Wisconsin Department of Health Services, Mental Health America of Wisconsin, and the MCW Comprehensive Injury Center.

The report uses current data to paint a picture of the burden of suicide across the state, and calls for a comprehensive approach to prevention that includes improved data in critical areas.

Together, Michel and Kohlbeck are working to do just that by gathering a network of partners across the state to build evidence that will help shape efforts to prevent veteran and active-military deaths by suicide. The collaborative project, called “Remembering the Lost,” will begin in October 2020 with the support of a $399,771 AHW grant.

The project adds to the more than $1.8 million AHW has invested in community-led approaches to preventing death by suicide in Wisconsin, and is one of seven funded through an AHW grant opportunity designed to help community-academic partnerships gather data to inform policies, programs, and practices that can improve health in Wisconsin.

“If we can improve data, identify gaps in the systems, and understand the life circumstances that are contributing to death by suicide among veterans, we can then push prevention and help upstream so that people aren’t even getting to the point of suicidal ideation, suicide attempts, or death by suicide,” said Kohlbeck.

The project will combine novel approaches, including working with Wisconsin’s medical examiners and coroners to identify opportunities to standardize data collection of veteran status, map available support services with access points and eligibility requirements to understand strengths and gaps in how veterans may access services, and conduct interviews with friends and family to examine the psychological and socioeconomic factors in the lives of veterans before their deaths.

Alongside that work, they will make a unique comparison in cases: Looking at the veteran’s discharge status.

“Making a comparison between folks who were honorably discharged and those with other discharge ratings may help us identify an important gap in information,” said Kohlbeck, who noted that a veteran’s discharge status impacts the services and health care they have access to within the Veterans Administration.

“National statistics show that about 14 of the 20 veterans that die by suicide each day are not enrolled in VA health care. The big question is: Why?” said Michel. “Were they not eligible? Did they choose not to go to the VA because of a bad experience? Had they sought care, but it wasn’t what they were looking for? The path to navigate veterans benefits is complex and can be even more challenging for those living with suicidal ideation.”

Understanding this information will help Michel, Kohlbeck, and their team identify gaps in what resources and health care are currently available.

“Ultimately, the long-term goal is to prevent suicide among veterans,” said Kohlbeck. “Suicide is 100 percent preventable.”



If you or someone you know needs help, support is available.

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available at 1-800-273-8255 (TALK). For service members, veterans, and their families needing non-crisis support, call the R&R House Warmline at 262-336-9540.

Find a list of Wisconsin County Crisis Lines at

Project Details

Project Title: Remembering the Lost: How Investigation of Military Suicides can Improve Prevention Resources
Award: $399,771
Award Date: October 2020
Principal Investigator: Stephen Hargarten, MD, Emergency Medicine
MCW Academic Partner: Sara Kohlbeck, MPH, Emergency Medicine
Community Partner:

Mental Health America of Wisconsin (MHA)