Vets With substance Abuse More Likely to Suicide by Violent Means

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In a study of more than 5,000 Veterans with substance use disorders, researchers found that, despite having access to potentially lethal substances, 70% of those who died by suicide used violent means. The study was reported in the July issue of the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs.

The researchers found that the people took their own lives by overdose had more severe mental disorders such as depression or posttraumatic stress disorder. “What's troubling about these findings is that some of the predictors that we typically think of as good indicators of suicide risk were not as closely related to violent suicide as nonviolent suicide, although violent suicide was the most common type of suicide," said lead researcher Dr. Mark Ilgen, a psychologist at the Ann Arbor VA Health Care System "It's potentially scary if there's a group of patients that is somewhat large in number that we might be missing by paying attention only to psychiatric problems."

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The researchers say the findings highlight the importance of suicide prevention in people with substance use disorders. Previous research has found that people with substance use disorders are about 10 to 14 times more likely to die by suicide than people without these problems.

This is concerning becaue service members admit to drinking heavily which is a statistic the military hasn’t managed to lower in 20 years. “If you look at heavy use of alcohol, drinking a lot in a short span of time, we tend to have a higher prevalence than the civilian community,” said Lt. Col. Wayne Talcott, an Air Force psychologist. Young military people between 18 and 25 also tend to do more heavy drinking than their civilian peers. It is also concerning because suicide is the second leading cause of death in the US military.

"Care providers should be aware of the high risk of suicide in this group and do an initial screening for current suicidal thoughts and plans," said Ilgen. "It's easy to wait to think about suicide prevention until someone is depressed, but it's really a conversation worth having with someone who has a substance use disorder, since they're already at risk."

Ilgen also suggested that reducing access to lethal means, which is often an effective suicide-prevention strategy in psychiatric patients, should be applied to drug and alcohol patients as well.

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