Recent research has indicated that there is reason to be concerned about suicide and female veterans as they have been found to commit suicide at a rate nearly six times that of other women. This disturbing statistic paints a shocking picture and leads us to question the experiences and backgrounds of women who serve in the forces. As men are particularly at risk of suicide in comparison to women, this came as a bit of a disturbing surprise as the number of suicide and female veterans has reached that of male veterans.
Why have the rates of suicide and female veterans caught up to the suicide rates of their male counterparts? How and why have these women reached the stage of mental health where suicide is contemplated or attempted?
Research by the Pentagon indicates that estimates regarding sexual violence may be part of the dramatic and startling numbers. It was estimated that 10% of all active-duty service women had been raped and an additional 13% had experienced sexual contact of an unwelcomed nature. A Department of Defense study indicated that up to 23% of women soldiers had been sexually assaulted in some form.
Previous research on suicide in the military had been aimed at males as they make up over 90% of the U.S.’s 22 million veterans. Prior to this research, there wasn’t much information and hadn’t been many studies on the rates of suicide and female veterans. After compiling 11 years’ worth of data, Veterans Affairs found that the rates of suicide in female veterans were predominantly in the age group of 19-29. This age group committed suicide at 12 times the rate of their nonveteran female peers. Female veterans studied in other age groups as long ago as the 1950s were 4-8 times higher than those in the 19-29 group. This statistic highlights the fact that there is a lot more going on that needs to be considered than the psychological effects of war.
The data consisted of 173,969 suicides of both sexes and included nonveterans and veterans from 23 states. It covered a 10 year period from 2000 to 2010 and revealed a pattern which was long-standing. The driving cause behind the rates was not particularly clear and multiple possibilities were considered such as whether trauma and sexual assault while in active duty played a role or whether the military had inadvertently drawn women into service which had previously high risks of suicide.
The study also revealed that although men have more successfully completed suicides, women have more attempts. These same studies indicated that although women traditionally were less likely to use a firearm to attempt suicide in the past, this has become more the method of choice for female veterans. They questioned whether this was as a result of firearms training necessary to work in the service or if some other underlying factor was the cause. Female veterans were found to be more likely to own a gun than nonveteran women. In the Veterans Affairs study, researchers indicated that 40% of suicide and female veterans involved a firearm in comparison to 34% use of a firearm in non-service personnel women.
Researchers are interested in the backgrounds of female service members to see if that would account for the increased rates. Male draft veterans had previously had approximately the same rates of suicide as their non-serving peers. Males who served on a voluntary basis after the period of draft enlisting had rates which exceeded those of non-service men. This leads researchers to believe that those who voluntarily choose to enlist in service may have increased suicide risks instead of situations which occurred during their time of service. They indicate this would require further study to include length of service and the time period in which they served to have more definite results.
It has been suggested in more recent studies that those who join the military are much more likely to have experienced sexual abuse, emotional abuse, or difficult childhoods prior to enlisting. This suggests that post traumatic stress disorder may also play a role in suicide attempts. Other studies on men covering the same subject found that people were more likely to have higher rates of suicidal thoughts, attempts, or other mental health disorders before they signed up.
Data covering periods during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars indicated that women who had previously only accounted for 2% of total military personnel were now in more active service roles in comparison to their traditional roles as nurses. More recent service meant women were on the ground and suffered historically unprecedented casualties but the rate of suicide remained stable. In contrast, the rates of male suicide in the same wartime efforts doubled for male service persons. The new data set covered approximately half of the population of veterans and indicated that individuals were more apt to commit suicide after they left the service.
The study indicated that 2,637 women and 40,571 men had commit suicide in the 11 years the research covered. This meant that for male veterans, the rate of suicide was 32.1 individuals per 100,000 whereas the general population has a rate of 20.9 individuals per 100,000. For women, the study indicated that 28.7 deaths per 100,000 were attributed to suicide and female veterans in contrast to 5.2 per 100,000 for other women.
The study further broke down rates by age groups and those for male veterans aged 18-29 were at 83.3 per 100,000 and 17.6 for nonveterans. For women veterans, the comparison was equally shocking as 39.6 per 100,000 deaths were attributed to suicide while the number for civilians was only 3.4.
When cases of individual suicide were studied, it was found that female veterans who had committed suicide had been discharged for medical or psychiatric problems early. In some cases, the link was not present and decades had passed since the person was in military service. These individuals had no financial issues, relationship breakages, or other mental health issues that accumulated throughout the course of their life.
While there has been no distinct identified reason why the rates of suicide and female veterans have increased, it is clear that it has become a substantial issue which requires further study in order to help those most vulnerable get the assistance they need. In the mean time, there is help available.
Because our treatment for depression and anxiety programs rely on evidence based practices, our Intensive Outpatient Program shares many common methods with other successful treatment methods. The foundation of our treatment program for relies on the principles of the stages of change, cognitive behavioral therapy, solution focused treatment, skills training and identifying repetitive dysfunctional behavioral relationship patterns to promote recovery from depression and other mental health disorders. In fact, our Intensive Outpatient Program in Memphis, TN that has been proven to be effective in the treatment of these disorders in six peer reviewed treatment outcome studies. Our treatment center provides services to those who need more treatment than one hour a week, but less than 24 hour care, by providing three hours of treatment per day, three to five days per week, in an intensive outpatient setting. It is also important to keep in mind that women and men often experience depression differently and therefore the presence of depression may also appear differently based on gender. If you or a loved one is showing signs of depression or anxiety, including PTSD, they should be assessed by a trained mental health professional who can help design a treatment plan for depression that can result in recovery. Treatment for depression and anxiety can be highly successful. People who have completed our program have provide very high consumer satisfaction scores and reviews. Call us at 901-682-6136 to schedule an appointment.