Male U.S. veterans are twice as likely to die by suicide than people with no military service, and are more likely to kill themselves with a gun than others who commit suicide, researchers said on Monday.
The findings indicate that doctors and others who may treat U.S. troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan should be alert for signs of depression and suicidal tendencies, said lead researcher Mark Kaplan of Portland State University in Oregon.
The study tracked 320,890 U.S. men, about a third of whom served in the U.S. military between 1917 and 1994. The rest had no military background.
Those with military service committed suicide at a rate 2.13 times higher than the other men, but did not have a higher risk of dying from disease, accidental causes or murder, the study found.
“This is identifying a problem that deserves more attention,” Kaplan said in a telephone interview.
Of the veterans, about 29 percent served in the Vietnam War, 28 percent in World War Two, 16 percent in the Korean War and the rest in other conflicts up through the 1991 Gulf War.
The veterans were 58 percent more likely to have used a firearm to kill themselves than non-veterans who committed suicide. Kaplan said studies show that veterans are more likely to own guns than the rest of the population.
The study was not designed to look at the causes of the higher suicide rate, but veterans, particularly those who saw combat, are at higher risk for mental conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder as well as battle wounds that can cause disabilities.
The research was published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health.
Kaplan said because of improvements in medicine since earlier wars, some troops serving in Iraq and Afghanistan have survived wounds that may have been fatal in previous conflicts, but have serious physical and mental disabilities that may put them at higher suicide risk.
'This will persist'
“I don’t see anything out there that really bodes well for a decline in the risk for suicide. I think that this will persist,” Kaplan said.
Those who committed suicide were more likely to have been white, better educated and older than the other men, the researchers found. The most acute risk was among veterans with some sort of a health problem that made them unable to participate fully in home, work or leisure activities.
Overweight veterans were less likely to have committed suicide than veterans of normal weight, the study said.
The researchers said unlike some previous studies on suicides among U.S. military veterans, theirs did not focus on Vietnam War-era veterans or veterans who get health care through the Department of Veterans Affairs system. They said three-quarters of veterans do not receive health care through VA facilities.
“Regardless of when an individual served in the military, they are at an elevated risk,” Kaplan said.
Kaplan said he and fellow researchers Nathalie Huguet, Bentson McFarland and Jason Newsom did not look at suicide among women veterans because there were so few suicide deaths among the group in the data they analyzed.
The study was funded by the National Institute of Mental Health, part of the U.S. National Institutes of Health.