October 30, 2007 / 9:58 PM / 12 years ago

Depressed male veterans have highest suicide risk

NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - Among depressed U.S. military veterans, young white men have the highest risk of suicide, the results of a large VA study suggest.

Using government data for more than 800,000 veterans who were treated for depression between1999 and 2004, the investigators found that the overall suicide risk was 7 to 8 times higher compared with that in the general population.

Male veterans had roughly three times the rate of suicide as female veterans did, while younger veterans — those ages 18 to 44 — had a higher suicide rate than their older counterparts. Men who were 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.

The study also found that white veterans were much more likely to commit suicide than all other racial groups — with a rate more than three times that of African-American vets.

Overall, the number of veterans who committed suicide during the 5-year study was on par 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 results pinpoint those vets who might have a particular risk of developing suicidal tendencies, according to the study authors, led by Dr. Kara Zivin of the Department of Veterans Affairs and the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

This will become increasingly important as more and more soldiers return from Iraq and Afghanistan, Zivin and her associates note in their study, published in the American Journal of Public Health.

Along with race, age and sex, other factors were 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. Similarly, and somewhat surprisingly, veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) were less likely to commit suicide than those without the disorder.

The various reasons for these links cannot be discerned from this study, according to Zivin’s team. In the case of the PTSD findings, they speculate, it’s possible that these veterans benefited from more-intense psychiatric care, which in turn lowered their suicide risk.

However, more studies are needed to figure out why certain factors seem to predispose some veterans to a higher suicide risk.

For now, Zivin and her colleagues conclude, the current findings point to particular groups of vets who, for whatever reason, may be at greatest risk.

“These findings can assist clinicians and policy makers in determining which veterans to more closely monitor for signs and symptoms of potential suicidal behavior and which subgroups might be targeted first in systematic efforts to reduce suicide,” the researchers conclude.

SOURCE: American Journal of Public Health, December 2007.

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