New report highlights mental health challenges facing women veterans

As suicide rates soar, DAV makes over 50 policy and legislative recommendations to ensure access to quality, gender-specific mental health care for women veterans

Washington, Feb. 27, 2024 (GLOBE NEWSWIRE) -- Women veterans are dying by suicide at an alarming rate, especially when compared with their male and civilian counterparts. A new report, released today by DAV (Disabled American Veterans), shows that despite years of progress in recognizing, serving and understanding this population, too many women veterans continue to be at risk of falling through the cracks due to gaps in life-saving mental health care.

DAV’s report, Women Veterans: The Journey to Mental Wellness, is the most comprehensive assessment of the unique factors contributing to the staggering rates of suicide among women veterans and how the system charged with their mental health care—the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA)—can and must do better. Using the latest available research and data, combined with a thorough review of the VA’s practices and available services, this in-depth report calls on the VA to step up efforts to ensure the health and safety of our nation’s women veterans.

“In light of the devastating increase in suicides among women veterans, it is imperative that the VA, Congress and advocates turn their focus to filling the gaps in mental health care for this population. The unique challenges and risk factors women veterans face demand a tailored, thoughtful approach in order to ensure that our nation fulfills its promise of caring for all of our veterans,” said DAV National Legislative Director Joy Ilem.  

Women Veterans: The Journey to Mental Wellness includes over 50 policy and legislative recommendations intended to spark necessary and urgent change that can save lives.

Highlights and recommendations from the report include:

Unique Risk Factors: Research shows that key factors, including high rates of military sexual trauma (MST) and intimate partner violence, substance use disorders, and reproductive health challenges, put women veterans at higher risk for suicide compared with their civilian counterparts.

    • Military sexual trauma (MST): Among veterans enrolled in the VA, 1 in 3 women report experiencing MST, compared to 1 in 50 men.
    • Intimate partner violence: Nearly 1 in 5 women veterans using VA primary care reported experiencing intimate partner violence in the past year.
    • Substance use disorder: The risk of suicide death among women veterans with active substance use disorder is more than twice what it is for men.
    • Pregnancy: During pregnancy and up to a year after giving birth can be a time of increased risk for a mental health diagnosis and suicidality in women patients with a prior mental health diagnosis.
    • Menopause: Menopause has been shown to raise the risk for depression in women twofold and corresponds to the highest rates of suicide among U.S. women.

Gaps in mental health care: DAV’s report reveals the need to improve access to mental health care that accounts for the unique risk factors women veterans face, improve suicide prevention efforts among women veterans, and invest in further research and data collection that proportionally represents women veterans.

  • Screenings: Evidence of a significant number of false negative screens for MST, a known risk factor for suicide among many women veterans. 
  • Intervention: The VA’s innovative model to predict suicidality and intervene with high-risk veterans uses male veterans as its baseline and does not consider MST.
  • Access: According to the VA, 1 in 4 women veterans live in rural areas where veterans face significant barriers to health care.
  • Gender-specific care: VA reports that only 13 residential rehabilitation centers provide gender-exclusive care and services.
  • Training: VA’s community care network providers are not required to be trained in suicide risk identification and intervention or lethal-means safety counseling. 
  • Understanding: The impact of reproductive health life stages on mental health and suicide risk among women veterans is woefully understudied and not well defined.
  • Awareness: Many women veterans say they did not even know they were eligible for VA health care or were unaware of the comprehensive resources available to them.

DAV’s recommendations: The report makes over 50 policy and legislative recommendations to ensure equity in access to quality, gender-specific mental health care for women veterans, including:

  • Emphasis on MST: MST should be a central pillar of suicide prevention efforts within the VA to ensure veterans are effectively screened or rescreened for MST.
  • Veteran-specific hotline: Similar to the 988 Suicide and Crisis Hotline, the Department of Health and Human Services should create a three-digit number, with a veteran option, for the National Domestic Violence Hotline (800-799-7233).
  • Consider unique risks: The VA must revise its model for predicting suicidality to incorporate risk factors weighted for women veterans.
  • Serving rural communities: The VA must develop targeted solutions to bridge gaps for the provision of mental health care services in rural communities. 
  • Residential rehabilitation: The VA should assess the need to increase gender-specific programming in residential rehabilitation programs.
  • Required training: The VA must require that its community care network providers are trained in suicide prevention and lethal-means safety counseling.
  • Understanding menopause: VA and non-VA experts in menopausal women’s health should collaborate to explore a research agenda on the related threads of menopause and suicide.

DAV has long been a leading advocate for women veterans, fighting for access to the health care and other benefits they earned. Women Veterans: The Journey to Mental Wellness is DAV’s third report focused on the unique experiences and needs of women veterans.

“DAV created this report to highlight mental health care needs for a particularly at-risk and historically underserved population,” said DAV Washington Headquarters Executive Director Randy Reese. “While it is up to Congress and the VA to address the gaps and solutions DAV has identified, we will continue to support our shared mission in caring for the men and women who have sacrificed so much for our nation.” 

Visit to read the entire report and find personal stories from women veterans.


About DAV
DAV empowers veterans to lead high-quality lives with respect and dignity. It is dedicated to a single purpose: keeping our promise to America’s veterans. DAV does this by ensuring that veterans and their families can access the full range of benefits available to them, fighting for the interests of America’s injured heroes on Capitol Hill, providing employment resources to veterans and their families, and educating the public about the great sacrifices and needs of veterans transitioning back to civilian life. DAV, a nonprofit organization with more than 1 million members, was founded in 1920 and chartered by the U.S. Congress in 1932. Learn more at