Reviewed by John M. Grohol, Psy.D.
A new study investigates the troubling fact that American veterans who repeatedly attempt suicide suffer significantly greater mortality rates than the general population.
The transition back into civilian life is difficult after weathering the stresses of military life and the terrors of combat. Some soldiers find themselves overwhelmed by the transition. Many have already survived one suicide attempt, but never get the extra help and support they needed, with tragic results.
Researchers discovered veterans who have attempted suicide not only have an elevated risk of further suicide attempts, but face mortality risks from all causes at a rate three times greater than the general population.
The study is the largest follow-up of suicide attempters in any group in the U.S., and is unique even among the relatively few studies on veteran suicide.
Douglas J. Wiebe, Ph.D., and fellow researchers studied the records of 10,163 veterans treated for a suicide attempt between 1993-1998. They discovered 1,836 died during the follow-up period through 2002, with heart disease, cancer, accidents, and suicide accounting for over 57 percent of those deaths.
Suicide, however, was the second-leading cause of death among the male veterans, and the leading cause among females, accounting for just over 13 percent of all the deaths in the study cohort.
In comparison, suicide accounted for only 1.8 percent of deaths in the general U.S. population during those years.
Researchers found that the so-called “healthy soldier effect” — that military personnel should be healthier than an average person of the same sex and age because they have passed military fitness requirements — does not protect veterans from death from chronic disease, and does not appear to mitigate their risk of suicide.
“The ‘healthy soldier effect’ is no reason to think that veterans should be more emotionally and mentally resilient than anyone else,” said Wiebe.
“The consequences of military service can include both physical and emotional health challenges that veterans continue to face long after their ‘war’ is no longer on the front page.”
The current study strongly emphasizes the increased need for more intensive and vigorous efforts to identify and support veterans who are at risk, especially those who have already actually attempted suicide, the authors said.
With military personnel now facing combat in numbers not seen since the Vietnam War, developing better strategies for suicide prevention is more important than ever.
“Almost all of today’s soldiers are seeing combat and repeated tours, so that could be a reason to be even more concerned about veteran populations in the years moving forward,” Wiebe says.
Wiebe believes policymakers and society in general need to be informed on this problem, but he is hopeful that examples of successful suicide prevention programs, particularly one conducted by the U.S. Air Force, could provide an inspiration and foundation for new efforts.
“A major part of the success of that program was just changing the climate around how people think and talk about suicide,” he says. “There’s evidence out there to suggest that could work among veterans too. The time to get started is now.”
Source: University of Pennsylvania