Young white veterans more at risk of suicide

The results of a large study on military veterans in the United States suggests that it is young white men who have the highest risk of suicide.

Researchers who examined government data on more than 800,000 veterans treated for depression between 1999 and 2004, discovered that the overall suicide risk was 7 to 8 times higher compared with that in the general population.

The researchers also found that male veterans had roughly three times the rate of suicide as female veterans and younger veterans between the ages of 18 to 44, had a higher suicide rate than their older counterparts.

Men 65 years or older had the second highest risk, while the lowest risk was seen among men between the ages of 45 and 64 years old and white veterans were much more likely to commit suicide than all other racial groups, at a rate more than three times that of African-Americans.

During the 5-year study period the number of veterans who committed suicide equated with the rates among men in the general population suffering from depression; of the 807,694 depressed veterans in the study, 1,683 -- or 0.2 percent -- killed themselves.

The researchers led by Dr. Kara Zivin of the Department of Veterans Affairs and the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, say the results indicate those veterans who might possibly have a particular risk of developing suicidal tendencies.

Zivin and her colleagues believe this will become increasingly important as more and more soldiers return from Iraq and Afghanistan.

Along with race, age and sex, other factors were also linked with suicide risk.

Veterans who admitted to substance abuse were at increased suicide risk, while those with service-related disabilities were actually at lower risk than vets without such injuries.

Surprisingly, veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) were less likely to commit suicide than those without the disorder and the researchers suggest that these veterans benefited from more-intense psychiatric care, which in turn lowered their suicide risk.

Zivin and her colleagues say the findings point to particular groups of vets who, for whatever reason, may be at greatest risk and that more resources may be needed to curtail suicide in this age group.

They say the findings could help the medical profession and the military determine which veterans need to be more closely monitored for signs and symptoms of potential suicidal behavior.

Many experts are not surprised by the results and say the scientific community has been aware for some time that younger veterans are heavily affected by suicide.

They say younger soldiers may be at greater risk of suicide because they lack the life experience of older veterans, which may act as a protective factor from resorting to suicide.

The study 'Dealing With Trauma' is published in the American Journal of Public Health, December 2007.

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