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Suicide among veterans of military service is a virtual epidemic. More members of the military kill themselves after leaving the service than die on active duty. One of the sad parts of this situation is that there are ways to reduce the likelihood of suicide. For example, treating conditions like depression, substance abuse disorders, or post-traumatic stress syndrome makes suicide less likely. The trouble in this case is knowing who is at risk. Having ways to predict suicidal ideation in veterans would be an excellent way to start.

Which Veterans Are At Risk of Suicide?

The first year after military discharge is a time of high risk for veteran suicide. Veterans are coping with their reentry into civilian life, are often dealing with relationship issues, and may well feel lost. It should not be surprising that this is a time when many veterans think of suicide when times of tough. The Veterans Metrics Initiative Study looked at veterans in the first year after military service, three and nine months after separation. They assessed psychosocial well-being and mental health as well as military/demographic factors. The point was to help determine which veterans are at risk of suicide by seeing who was troubled by suicidal thoughts during this time.

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Who Is At Risk of Suicide in the First Year After Military Discharge?

In the Veterans Metrics Initiative Study, they found that 15.1% of those surveyed admitted to thoughts of suicide. The factors that best predicted suicidal thoughts were having symptoms of clinical depression followed by the person believing that their were depressed. Frequent but less common indicators included high levels of anxiety and symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. Factors that generally excluded suicidal thinking were satisfaction with the community in which a veteran lived, being satisfied with their health and well-being, and psychological resilience.  

When Does Thinking of Suicide Lead to a Suicide Attempt?

Not everyone who thinks of suicide commits suicide. In fact, not everyone who thinks of suicide attempts to end their lives. According to a study by the World Health Organization, two out of three people who think of suicide never make an attempt to end their lives. Another study indicated that seven percent of people who are thinking of suicide will make an attempt within the following two years. A study reported in World Psychiatry noted that sorting out suicidal ideation versus suicide attempts was difficult but possible. They noted that the transition from suicidal thoughts to a potential suicide attempt happens when the person acquires the means to end their lives. This helps explain the fact that veterans have a higher risk of suicide than the general population. Veterans are trained in the use of firearms while the larger population is not. Veterans are also accustomed to dealing with violent or potentially violent situations whereas the general population is not.

Loss of Hope As a Factor that Triggers a Suicide Attempt

Military veterans are accustomed to difficult situations. They are trained to work their way through tough times and succeed at whatever task is put before them. This training makes it more likely that for those in the civilian population that a veteran will tough it out, find a solution to their dilemma, and keep going. They will do this even when a situation appears to be impossible. However, the sheer weight of circumstances that weigh on a vet who comes home to a broken relationship, PTSD, traumatic brain syndrome, and a dysfunctional community may be more than even the toughest can bear. There comes a point when thinking of ending one’s life seems like a rational decision. For someone with the means to end their life and the necessary skills, this is a lethal situation.

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Absence of Meaningful Relationships and Suicide

We know that social isolation and broken relationships increase the risk of suicide. Simply having someone acknowledge that life is tough, someone to talk to, commonly helps keep hope alive. When that goes away, even briefly, it may be what leads from suicidal thinking to an attempt. What this brings us back to is the importance of staying in touch with veterans, especially during their first year back in civilian society. New treatments like psychedelic medicine-assisted therapies hold a lot of hope. What is necessary is identifying those at greatest risk and connecting them to the appropriate treatment modality. Most importantly, keeping in touch with an isolated vet may make the biggest difference in preventing the transition from suicidal thoughts to a suicide attempt.

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