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Suicide in Operation Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom Veterans

Operation Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom Highlight Soldiers' Risks

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Updated January 26, 2009

Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) and Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) veterans are exhibiting a number of difficulties, including posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, alcohol abuse, physical health problems, and difficulties managing anger, and there is some evidence that OIF and OEF veterans may also be at heightened risk for suicide.

Traumatic Exposure, PTSD and Suicide

In the United States, nearly 31,000 people commit suicide each year. Although women attempt suicide more so than men, men are more likely to succeed in ending the life during a suicide attempt.

In addition, in general, people who have experienced a traumatic event may be at greater risk for attempting suicide. This is especially the case when it comes to the experience of a sexual or physical assault in childhood or adulthood. In addition, multiple experiences of sexual or physical assault can further increase a person's risk for attempting suicide.

People with a PTSD diagnosis are also at greater risk to attempt suicide. One study found that among people who have had a diagnosis of PTSD at some point in their lifetime, approximately 27% have also attempted suicide.

Suicide in Operation Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom Veterans

Some reports have come out that indicate high rates of suicide among OIF/OEF veterans. For example, in 2007, the U.S. Army reported that there were 115 suicides among OIF/OEF veterans. This was the highest number of suicides reported since the Army started keeping track about 30 years ago.

However, less is known about what might put an OIF/OEF veteran at risk for suicide. To look at this, Dr. Han Kang and Mr. Tim Bullman of the Environmental Epidemiology Service in the Department of Veterans Affairs in Washington D.C. conducted a study that attempted to determine whether these individuals are at greater risk for suicide than people in the general U.S. population.

Among almost 500,000 OIF/OEF veterans, they found that 818 had ended their own life. In addition, risk for suicide among these veterans, in general, was not higher than that found for people in the U.S. population, and risk did not really differ depending on a veteran's branch of service (for example, Army, Marines, Navy, Air Force). However, former active duty veterans and veterans who had a psychiatric disorder were at greater risk for suicide.

Preventing Suicide

Given that OIF/OEF veterans are showing elevated rates of various psychiatric disorders, a significant proportion may also be at greater risk for suicide. Fortunately, suicide is preventable.

If you notice that you are having thoughts of ending your own life, there are a number of things that you can do to cope with and lessen the impact of those thoughts. It can also be helpful to talk with your therapist about developing a safety plan, or the steps you can take during a crisis to keep you safe. For example, you may connect with your therapist, call a suicide hotline (800-784-2433 or 800-273-8255), call 911, or go to the emergency room.

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration's (SAMHSA) National Mental Health Information Center has also put together a downloadable information sheet on suicide that provides valuable resources on suicide, as well as who you can call if you are in crisis.

If you don't have a therapist and are experiencing suicidal thoughts or feel that you might be someone who could be at risk for harming yourself, it is important to seek out a psychiatric evaluation and a therapist. Suicidal thoughts are a sign that you may need some immediate help with your symptoms. You can find PTSD treatment providers in your area through UCompare HealthCare, a free searchable database from About.com.

Sources:

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), National Center for Injury Prevention and Control (2004). Web-based injury statistics query and reporting system. Retrieved from http://www.cdc.gov/ncipc/wisqars/default.htm.

Kang, H.K., & Bullman, T.A. (2008). Risk of suicide among US veterans after returning from the Iraq and Afghanistan War zones. Journal of the American Medical Association, 300, 652-653.

Kessler, R.C., Sonnega, A., Bromet, E., Hughes, M., & Nelson, C.B. (1995). Posttraumatic stress disorder in the National Comorbidity Survey. Archives of General Psychiatry, 52, 1048-1060.

Nock, M.K., & Kessler, R.C. (2006). Prevalence of and risk factors for suicide attempts versus suicide gestures: Analysis of the National Comorbidity Survey. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 115, 616-623.

Tarrier, N., & Gregg, L. (2004). Suicide risk in civilian PTSD patients: Predictors of suicidal ideation, planning, and attempts. Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology, 39, 655-661.

Thompson, M.P., Kaslow, N.J., Kingree, J.B., Puett, R., Thompson, N., & Meadows, L.A. (1999). Partner abuse and posttraumatic stress disorder as a risk factor for suicide attempts in a sample of low income, inner-city women. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 12, 59-72.

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