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Female Veterans Have High Suicide Rate


War takes a terrible toll on women, and for a growing number of female veterans, those who survive the battlefield succumb to suicide. New research shows that the suicide rate among young female veterans is nearly three times that of their civilian counterparts.

Is suicide among female veterans an epidemic?

A new research paper, entitled “Self-Inflicted Deaths Among Women with U.S. Military Service: A Hidden Epidemic?” is the first general populations study to examine suicide risk among women who have served in the US military. The findings are disturbing.

Bentson McFarland, MD,PhD, a professor of psychiatry in the Oregon Health & Science University School of Medicine, along with two colleagues from Portland State University, evaluated data on 5,948 female suicides committed between 2004 and 2007. They discovered that among women ages 18 to 34, there were 56 suicides among 418,132 female veterans (1 in 7,465) and 1,461 suicides among 33,257,362 nonveterans (1 in 22,763), or nearly triple the suicide rate among veterans compared with nonveterans.

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When the researchers analyzed the data in two other age groups, “the rate was lower in the next oldest age group we studied,” noted McFarland, “aged 35 to 44, and the rate was lower still among those aged 45 to 64.” However, even thought the rates were lower, the suicide rate was still higher among the military women than among civilians.

Women in the military have to deal with a variety of stressors and traumas that can contribute to suicide. A newly released study shows that female soldiers experience more sleep problems than their civilian counterparts, especially military women who are mothers of young children and those who are pregnant. An article in military.com in 2008 reported that the number of cases of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) among female soldiers was rising.

According to Kimberly Dennis, medical director at Timberline Knolls Residential Treatment Center, “it has been well-documented in research literature that women are already twice as likely to develop PTSD as men following a trauma. And in the military, women have to deal with increased rates of sexual harassment and assault.”

Mark Kaplan, Dr.PH, of Portland State University and co-author of the new suicide study, emphasized that “the elevated rates of suicide among women veterans should be a call-to-action, especially for clinicians and caregivers to be aware of warning signs and helpful prevention resources.” One of those resources is the Veterans Suicide Prevention Hotline (1-800-273-8255), which was established to provide free, 24/7 access to trained counselors for veterans in emotional crisis.

Oregon Health & Science University news release