Veterans’ Suicide Risk Doubles with Drinking, Drug Abuse: Study Finds

United States veterans living with a substance abuse problem have a higher risk of committing suicide than veterans who don’t have this problem, according to a new study.

Researchers looked at more than four million veterans. They determined that eight percent of men and four percent of women had either drug or alcohol issue. Veterans in this category were twice as likely to take their own lives compared to veterans who didn’t have a substance abuse disorder.

Women Especially at Risk for Suicide

The danger of suicide for female veterans with substance abuse difficulties was even more threatening than it was for males. The women were more than five times more likely to commit suicide than female veterans who didn’t abuse alcohol or drugs.

Kipling Bohnert, the study leader, stated that the study results should serve as helpful information for doctors and health care providers working with patients who have substance abuse disorders. It should make them aware of the risk of suicide and encourage efforts toward prevention.

The suicide rate for US veterans is 20 per day, according to researchers. This is much higher than for the general population. Bonhert commented recently in a university news release that substance use disorders “may be important markers for suicide risk.”

Substance Type Plays a Role in Suicide Risk

The study results revealed that the type of substance used by the veterans had an impact on their risk of suicide. Veterans who abused prescription sedatives, such as tranquilizers, were at the highest level of risk.

Female veterans were at higher risk by abusing opioid pain medications. Male veterans were at higher risk of taking their own lives if they were abusing amphetamines (“uppers”), according to the study results.

The study was published in the online version of the journal Addiction. It draws attention to the need for more suicide prevention efforts directed toward veterans with substance abuse issues. This need is even more urgent for veterans living with mental health concerns such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder or schizophrenia.

Gun Safety Should be Included in Prevention Efforts

Gun safety needs to be addressed in the efforts to lower suicide rates. Two-thirds of the suicides examined in the study involved use of firearms. Another 25 percent of suicides by veterans with substance abuse issues involved ingesting poisons. Strategies to prevent suicide by taking harmful substances also needs to be addressed.

Therapeutic Site for Vets Helps Reduce Drinking and PTSD Symptoms

Hundreds of thousands of returning active duty soldiers and veterans have drinking problems that are connected to their service for our country. Recently, those who served in Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom seemed to be highly affected. The drinking is often in an attempt to self-medicate the PTSD symptoms they are experiencing.

A few years ago, research was conducted on the effectiveness of an online tool for helping these men and women reduce their drinking as well as their PTSD symptoms. It is called VetChange, and the randomized clinical trial showed that the program did indeed help. The results had been published in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology.

Today VetChange is a free service that is sponsored by Boston University and VA Boston Healthcare System in partnership with the National Center for PTSD, with support from the Bristol-Myers Squibb Foundation and the National Center for PTSD.

“Many veterans use alcohol to self-medicate for PTSD-related issues, such as stress, anger and sleep problems. Our program focuses on alcohol and its link to PTSD. It helps them learn to address these problems and other stressors in their lives without using alcohol,” said Dr. Brief, Director of Residential and Rehabilitation Services at the VA Boston Healthcare System, and Assistant Professor of Psychiatry and Psychology at Boston University.

The tool can be used by itself for Vets looking to reduce their drinking and improve the quality of their lives, and it can also be used in conjunction with traditional substance abuse and mental health treatments or therapies.