The Suicide Rate Among Female Veterans Is "Obscenely High"

Illustration for article titled The Suicide Rate Among Female Veterans Is Obscenely High

Male suicides outnumber female in every country on Earth, usually by a lot. In the U.S., men kill themselves around four times as often as women. But results of a newly published study reveal America’s female veterans commit suicide at nearly six times the rate of other women—a rate that approaches that of male veterans. The question is: Why?

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The study was led by Veterans Affairs epidemiologist Claire Hoffmire and appears in the latest issue of Psychiatric Services. Hoffmire and her colleagues were reportedly surprised by the results, and they offer no definitive explanations for the long-overlooked pattern. Northeastern University epidemiologist and suicide expert Dr. Matthew Miller captured the study’s results and significance perfectly: “It’s staggering,” he told Alan Zarembo of the L.A. Times. “We have to come to grips with why the rates are so obscenely high.”

Zarembo’s coverage of the new findings is a must-read. Below, I’ve included his summary of the study and its major takeaways. In his piece, he goes on to report on the death of 24-year-old Katie Lynn Cesena, a veteran of the U.S. Navy who, in 2011, took her own life. Zarembo says Cesena’s death highlights two factors that have been proposed for the increase in suicide rates among female veterans: rape and sexual abuse by fellow service members, and her use of a gun, “a method typically preferred by men”:

Though suicide has become a major issue for the military over the last decade, most research by the Pentagon and the Veterans Affairs Department has focused on men, who account for more than 90% of the nation’s 22 million former troops. Little has been known about female veteran suicide.

The rates are highest among young veterans, the VA found in new research compiling 11 years of data. For women ages 18 to 29, veterans kill themselves at nearly 12 times the rate of nonveterans.

In every other age group, including women who served as far back as the 1950s, the veteran rates are between four and eight times higher, indicating that the causes extend far beyond the psychological effects of the recent wars.

The data include all 173,969 adult suicides — men and women, veterans and nonveterans — in 23 states between 2000 and 2010.

It is not clear what is driving the rates. VA researchers and experts who reviewed the data for The Times said there were myriad possibilities, including whether the military had disproportionately drawn women at higher suicide risk and whether sexual assault and other traumatic experiences while serving played a role.

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Read the rest at the L.A. Times.

If you struggle with suicidal thoughts please call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline: 1-800-273-8255.


Contact the author at rtgonzalez@io9.com and @rtg0nzalez.

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DISCUSSION

So, a lot of the likely explanations for why men complete suicide at a much higher rate has to do with the way that boys are socialized to externalize their emotions much more commonly, while girls are socialized to internalize. This contributes to the fact that boys and men are more likely to be diagnosed with externalizing disorders like ADHD and ODD, while girls and women are more likely to be diagnosed with internalizing disorders like MDD, anxiety disorders, OCD, etc. This is related to suicide by choice of method; more fatal methods are typically more externalized and messy, while on the whole less fatal methods are related to internalizing, like taking pills (certain pill combinations can be extremely fatal, of course, but most are less dangerous than shooting yourself in the head).

I wonder if being in the armed forces is simply more attractive to both men and women who externalize. Combine that with the fact that they go through very similar stressors in a combat scenario, it makes sense that the suicide rates would even out. I assume this is especially true when you control for various diagnoses; that is, vets of either gender with externalizing diagnoses probably complete suicide at the same rate, I would guess.

edit: I realized a few minutes after posting that I did not mention the rate of sexual assault in the military, and this was a glaring oversight. I still wonder if the suicide rate would even out much more completely when controlling for diagnoses, but it would simply be inappropriate to leave out the fact that military sexual trauma is shockingly common among women (1 in 4 women respond “yes” when asked if they have experienced MST by the VA).