Alcohol, Drug Problems Dramatically Increase Veterans’ Suicide Risk

Research Pinpoints Who Is in the Most Danger

By Brenda L. Mooney

ANN ARBOR, MI — Solving the devastating issue of veteran suicide depends, at least partly, on being able to identify former servicemembers at the highest risk.

New research adds critical information to those efforts by finding that veterans who have drug or alcohol problems are more than twice as likely to die by suicide as their peers. An estimated 20 veterans die by suicide each day —a much higher rate than in the general population.

The report, published in the journal Addiction, points out that the increased risk is even greater for women veterans with substance use disorders (SUD). Their risk of suicide is five times more than for similarly-situated veterans without SUDs.

The study by researchers from the University of Michigan and the VA, which funded it, also was able to pinpoint the type of substance abuse that is most likely to increase suicide risks. Overall, misusers of prescription sedative medications, such as tranquilizers, have the highest suicide risks, the report noted. An especially high risk of suicide also was identified for women veterans who improperly use opioid painkillers.

“We hope these findings will help clinicians and health systems care for people with substance use disorders, with mental health conditions, and with both—and focus suicide prevention efforts accordingly,” said lead author Kipling Bohnert, PhD, a researcher with the VA Center for Clinical Management Research who also is an assistant professor of psychiatry at the U-M Medical School. “Substance use disorders may be important markers for suicide risk.”

In fact, Bohnert and his co-authors suggest that much of the difference in suicide risks for veterans might be explained by the nexus of mental health conditions and substance use issues.

To determine that, the researchers looked at all 4.9 million VHA users in fiscal year 2005 who were alive at the beginning of FY 2006, comparing them to FY 2006-2011 National Death Index (NDI) records on suicides. At the same time, current substance abuse diagnoses were determined using the FY 2004-2005 VHA National Patient Care Database (NPCD) records.

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