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Digging deeper into data on women veterans

Article in review: O’Brien, R.W., Tomoyasu, N. (2021). Editorial – Women and suicide – Moving forward on a challenging problem, Medical Care Vol 59, No 2, Supp 1, 4-5.

Digging deeper into the data
What we are learning about suicide amongst female veterans

Suicide rates in America are increasing; they are increasing for women faster than they are for men. Between 2005 and 2017 the overall increase in the suicide rate was 22%, while the increase for women over the same period was 34%. The Centre for Disease Control found that adjusted suicide rates between 2000-2016 rose by 21% for males and 50% for females.

Suicide amongst women veterans

Suicide within the forces has been observed to be increasing to a level that puts the rates similar to the general US population, after having been lower for many years. Furthermore, the rate of suicide among women veterans is also increasing significantly faster than for the general veteran population. A natural consequence of increasing numbers of women in the military is an increasing number of women veterans, with the figure rising 6.5% between 2005 and 2017. Over the course of these 13 years, the suicide rate among women veterans increased by 61%. The 2017 rate of suicide among male veterans was 39.1 per 100,000 and for females, it was 16.8 per 100,000; however, the rate for females was 2.2 times higher than the rate among non-veteran women.

Risk and research

As these worrying trends emerge, work needs to be done to identify women’s specific suicide risk factors, particularly for women veterans. And thankfully, research is beginning to be conducted to help us understand what factors contribute to these increases and encourage awareness of gender-based issues to improve prevention and treatment.

Prior research has found that important gender differences in suicide risk do exist, but we do not know enough yet to be able to tailor prevention approaches by gender. However, we are beginning to understand that interventions that increase self-worth through positive relationships may be more effective for women. This is in comparison to the more traditional and male-focused interventions that emphasise a sense of purpose. It seems that more work should be done to listen to and interpret the gendered narratives that accompany suicidal behaviours, especially in relation to the concept of the self, relationships, and capacity to cope with stress.

Contributing factors

It has been identified that many women who join the forces have experienced suicidal thoughts before they join; the onset of suicidal ideation, attempts, and self-injury are “most likely start prior to enlisting”. Attempts are also like to increase following separation from the military. Women who have left the military may be more likely to have multiple contributing risk factors, such as experiencing interpersonal violence, having mental health concerns, or be abusing substances. The influence of other experiences that can occur after leaving the military, such as non-military-related trauma, lack of supportive relationships, and the prescription of sedatives must also be considered. Women who have experienced military sexual trauma should be a unique risk group while a need for understanding the particular risks for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender veterans is also stated.

By better understanding the relationship between gender and suicidality, we may be able to identify best practice approaches for gender-tailored suicide prevention, particularly among high-risk groups like veterans.

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