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?
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.