A report released by the Pentagon earlier this year revealed a disturbing statistic: A soldier is more likely to die from suicide than war injuries.
Among active troops, suicide rates increased 18 percent from last year. Rates among veterans were also at distressing levels, with a veteran dying by suicide every 80 minutes, according to an estimate from the Department of Veterans Affairs and reported in this month’s Monitor on Psychology.
When faced with a problem of these proportions, it is vital to understand what factors increase the likelihood of suicide and which interventions are the most effective.
In response, the Army has prepared training for soldiers and families — to help them recognize signs of suicidal behavior, and to inform them of interventions and ways to access support. And this past August, President Obama signed an executive order that strengthened suicide prevention efforts for service members and veterans.
Lisa Brenner, PhD and her colleagues are working on ways to prevent suicide among veterans and lower completion rates. Brenner, is a director of the Department of Veterans Affairs’ Mental Illness Research, Education and Clinical Center.
Service members and veterans face an array of stressors that might be linked to suicide, including lengthy and multiple deployments in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. These wars also have left veterans wounded. Many of them have profoundly disabling head injuries.
Brenner reports that “among the U.S. military personnel who were injured while taking part in Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom, between 10 and 20 percent suffered traumatic brain injuries.”
Brenner led a study examining suicide risk in 49,626 VA patients with a history of traumatic brain injury (TBI). She and her team found that overall, veterans with TBI have an increased risk of dying by suicide compared with veterans without brain injury.
Greater understanding of the effect of TBIs on suicide is needed. Research is beginning to suggest that mild brain injury is very different than moderate to severe injury, says Brenner. Looking at these injuries separately will help begin to clarify their connection with suicidality.
Beyond research, evidence-based interventions for those with TBI are needed, Brenner said.
Although no studies have been done on ways to make suicide less likely among brain-injured veterans, a recent study in Australia found that it was possible to reduce hopelessness among adults with TBI through the use of cognitive-behavioral therapy.
Feelings of hopelessness strongly predict death by suicide, making this study significant in the search for effective evidence-based treatments.
Brenner and Grahame Simpson, the Australian researcher who carried out the earlier research, plan to tailor the therapy for use with U.S. veterans and will run an initial trial on several dozen participants to study its effectiveness.