Risk of Suicide for Veterans Long After Returning Home

A study by the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey California compared the risk of suicide in active duty military members and veterans. Their study determined that veterans who are out of the service for up to three months were 2.3 times more likely to commit suicide. Veterans between 3 to 12 months had almost triple the risk of suicide. Researches collected data on almost 3.8 million current and former service member from 2001 to 2011 in order to determine how different types of experiences during military service and afterwards might influence suicide risk. In total there were 4,492 suicides in the studies population.

Researchers determined military members who show evidence of self-inflicted injuries, or have been diagnosed with depression, bipolar disorder, substance abuse, or other mental health conditions are the strongest risk of suicide. Apart from that, service members who were deployed have a 50% higher risk of suicide than those who did not experience deployment. The study did not further examine why the suicide risk was lower during deployment compared to afterwards, but Yu-Chu Shen, the lead study author and a researcher in the study hypothesized that it might be because service members benefited from the positive psychological impact of belonging to a group who shared a common mission during deployment. Following their return, he believes that service members have more time to contemplate any negative feelings about their experiences.

Upon leaving the military the risk of suicide still remains high for several years. After 6 years veterans had a 63% higher risk of suicide compared to those still in service. There were some limitations regarding the study. First, the researches lacked data on mental health disorders diagnosed after separation from the military. Second, there was no data on how civilian experience such as divorce, unemployment, financial hardship, or housing insecurity played a factor into mental health conditions and risk of suicide. Dr. Charles Hoge, a senior scientist at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research wrote an accompanying editorial. Hoge also pointed out that the study does not account for the frequency or intensity of combat experiences.

Never the less, the finding suggest that veterans may need mental health services long after they return home. “Unfortunately, despite numerous efforts to reduce stigma and other barriers to care, stigma remains pervasive in society and many veterans still do not seek help when needed” Hoge stated. “Family members and communities can be proactive to reach out to veterans if they recently experience stressful events-not just limited to the stressful events we can capture in the data such as divorce or separation from the military” Shen indicated at the conclusion of his findings.

There are numerous signs and warnings for an underlying mental health problem that may require treatment. Things such as withdrawal from family and friends, noticeable changes in functioning or behavior, talking about suicide or death, giving away belonging, increase use of alcohol or substance use, and expression of feeling of hopelessness or worthlessness. One resource that is available 24/7 is the national suicide prevention lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.

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