A new study finds that among recently returned veterans, those who are married or living with a partner are at higher suicide risk than soldiers who are single. Moreover, older married female veterans are at the greatest risk.
Researchers at the University of Connecticut and U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs discovered that for some veterans, the transition back to a domestic home environment is an overwhelmingly stressful event. They found the pressures, roles, and responsibilities that accompany the transition add to their internal struggles.
Their findings appear in the Archives of Suicide Research.
“It certainly makes sense when you think about it,” said Dr. Crystal Park, UConn psychology professor and one of the study’s co-authors.
“There are added pressures that come with maintaining a relationship and meeting household needs. People may have expectations when they’re away and when they return it’s not what they imagined, the romance may not be there. It’s just the daily grind and that can drive up stress levels and increase feelings of despair.”
Addressing suicidal behavior among veterans is a major public health concern. It is estimated that 20 veterans die daily by suicide and 18 percent of all suicide deaths in the United States are current or former military personnel.
The findings are based on the responses of 772 recently returned veterans who participated in the Survey of Experiences of Returning Veterans (SERV), a longitudinal study overseen by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
Given the recent influx of women into the armed services, the survey sought to gauge the experiences of female veterans, in particular. As a result of a targeted recruiting campaign, women represented more than 40 percent of those surveyed, which is more than double the actual representation in the military.
In the survey, the average age of veterans was 35. They had served in Iran, Afghanistan, and surrounding areas as part of Operations Enduring Freedom, Iraqi Freedom, and New Dawn. Most of them — 62 percent — served in the Army. Seventy-five percent reported exposure to combat.
More than 20 percent of those surveyed reported thoughts of suicide, with six percent reporting a past attempt and current thoughts of suicide. Significantly, the study confirmed prior reports of female veterans, in general, being at increased risk of suicide relative to men.
Younger veterans in their 20s, both male and female, reported much less suicide ideation than older vets in their 40s and 50s who completed the survey. Park suspects the finding may be due to the fact that many older veterans of recent conflicts were members of the National Guard or military reserves who were called into service.
“A lot of the people who went over there weren’t active duty military,” says Park. “They were people who signed up for something but probably never anticipated they would be going to Afghanistan to fight the Taliban. They had jobs. They had kids. They had a life that was much different than someone who chooses to enlist in the military.”
The survey also looked at the role veterans’ religious feelings and spirituality might play in increasing or decreasing suicide risk.
Researchers found that veterans who had negative attitudes about religion and spirituality — meaning they felt God was punishing them or that God had abandoned them — were at significantly higher risk for suicide, even after accounting for depression and other variables.
Interestingly, the researchers found that positive feelings about religion and spirituality, such as feelings that God is a partner in your life and someone you can turn to for guidance, support, and strength, did not significantly reduce veterans’ suicide risk.
Most importantly, Park says, the study clearly showed that spiritual struggle among veterans is a separate and independent risk factor for suicide and not just a reflection of people’s depression.
“This suggests that people are experiencing some profound spiritual struggle over and above any depression they might have,” said Park. “What people experience, what they do, and what they witness can have profound negative effects on them when they come back.”
The findings emphasize the importance of religion and spirituality in veteran suicide prevention efforts, the researchers said, and underscore the need for counseling and supports that are both gender specific and tailored to the needs of veterans during their initial reintegration into civilian life.
Source: University of Connecticut