Risk for Suicide Among Veterans in the Community

Risk for Suicide Among Veterans in the Community

Mark Kaplan, Dr.P.H.

Mark Kaplan, Dr.P.H., an AFSP Distinguished Investigator, and colleagues have conducted a general population study of suicide antecedents among women and men with a history of U.S. military service. Unlike most veteran suicide studies that are conducted within the Veterans Administration, Dr. Kaplan’s study used the National Violent Death Reporting System (NVDRS), a state-based surveillance system that gathers information from death certificates, police reports, and coroner or medical examiner reports to provide detailed information about individuals who die by a violent death. This database, available in 16 states at the time of the study, provides important information about different risks for suicide related to military status, age, gender, recent stressors and many other factors.

The investigators found that veterans were at a much higher risk for suicide than nonveterans, especially women who had nearly triple the rate of suicide relative to women who never served in the military. Veterans, especially older veterans, were also more likely to die by firearms.

Dr. Kaplan and colleagues found important differences between the risk profiles of individuals who died by firearms and those who died by other means. Individuals who died by firearms were more likely to have experienced a stressful life event during the two weeks prior to death. Individuals who died by other means were more likely to have a diagnosis of mental illness and a previous suicide attempt.

Dr. Kaplan and colleagues also investigated the relationship between age and suicide among male veterans and found that mental illness, substance abuse, and financial and relationship problems were more common in younger veterans. Nearly one-third of the youngest veterans had a Blood Alcohol Concentration (BAC) greater than or equal to .08 based on toxicological data, regardless of whether or not they had a longstanding alcohol use problem. By contrast, fewer than 10% of veterans over age 65 were found to have BACs high enough to indicate intoxication at the time of death and older men were more likely to have health problems.

Dr. Kaplan received a large grant from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) based on the findings of this study. AFSP strongly supports the development of the NVDRS in all states in the U.S.

Mark Kaplan, Dr.P.H., is a Professor of the School of Community Health at Portland State University in Portland, Ore. Click here to read more about Dr. Kaplan's Distinguished Investigator Grant.

Published articles from this study:

  • McFarland, B.H., Kaplan, M.S., & Huguet, N. (2010). Self-inflicted deaths among women with United States military service: a hidden epidemic? Psychiatric Services, 61(12), 1177.
  • Kaplan, M.S., McFarland, B.H., Huguet, N. & Valenstein, M. (2012). Suicide risk and precipitating circumstances among young, middle-aged, and older male veterans.American Journal of Public Health, 102(91): 9131-9137.
  • Kaplan, M.S., McFarland, B.H., & Huguet, N. (2009). Firearm suicide among veterans in the general population: Findings from the National Violent Death Reporting System. Journal of Trauma. 67, 503-507.