The veteran suicide rate is nearly double that of the general population, according to the lead researchers in a new study out of Yale. They say that is one reason why they have spent a decade looking into the topic.
In a report published this month, the researchers found that despite genetic risk factors, social support is crucial in reducing the suicide rate among veterans.
Veterans compromise just over 7% of the U.S. population, but they make up more than 13% of all deaths by suicide. More than 5% of male veterans and 10% of female veterans attempt suicide in their lifetimes, according to the study.
James Norrie made a difference for the country: five years active duty in the Marine Corps, three years active reserves, and multiple tours in Iraq. However, the experience had a huge impact on him, when he returned and suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder.
“Isolating myself, being stuck in my own head 90% of the time,” Norrie said. “I wouldn't leave the house, and when I did, I was just angry, I couldn't be around crowds. I had a lot of recurring nightmares that were taking my sleep away from me.”
The struggle ultimately became too much. Twelve years ago, he tried to take his own life.
“I just felt like there was no way out and I had nothing else to do, and I was burdening everybody around me,” he said.
Norrie adds that he is not alone in attempting suicide.
“I've seen quite a few of my own veteran friends that have either attempted or have been successful,” he said.
The tragic pattern is why researchers Peter Na and Robert Pietrzak spent the last decade studying veterans suicide risks.
“8.8% of veterans develop suicidal thoughts over the study period, which is a seven-year perspective, and 4% had persistent suicidal thoughts,” Na, a staff psychiatrist at the VA Connecticut Health system and clinical instructor of psychiatry at Yale School of medicine, said.
The study was a collaboration between Yale and the National Center For PTSD. Researchers followed a cohort of more 1,326 veterans all over the country for seven years.
“What really is unique about our approach is that we're really harnessing both biological information, but also social environmental information,” Pietrzak, director of the National Center For PTSD and professor in Yale’s Department of Psychiatry and Public Health, said.
They studied the genetic predisposition to suicide. With a simple saliva collection, the researchers could determine a polygenic risk score. That is an estimate of a person’s likelihood for suicidal thoughts and behaviors.
In a paper published in “Molecular Psychiatry” on November 2, the researchers determined that even if a veteran has a high-risk score, there are ways to intervene through social interaction.
“The veterans with higher levels of social support, especially emotional support, such as having someone to turn to help deal with a personal problem, were less likely to develop suicidal thoughts over the study period,” Na said.
Na and Pietrzak say this study is released at a time when there is there a rise in veterans taking their own lives.
“It's at its highest record rate in U.S. history, nationally increased by 30% over the past decade,” Na said.
They say they have already seen some social interventions help.
One is called “Best Possible Self Intervention,” and involves a veteran taking just five minutes each day to write down notes about their optimal future. Another is a program through the VA called “Compassionate Contact Corps,” where volunteers link up with veterans feeling lonely.
“We really need to take the rigor that we typically apply to drug studies and apply it to studying these more social interventions,” Pietrzak said. “The research that we and other groups are doing has clearly now for decades been demonstrating the importance of social factors.”
While his suicide attempt may seem like a low point, today, Norrie has a different perspective.
“I consider it actually a high point,” he said. “It made me wake up and realize that there is a way out of this.”
Norrie has since found social support.
“One of my roommates while I was being treated directly after my attempt was also a veteran who was going through a lot of the same things that I was. Awe really bonded, and we're still friends to this day, and that was 12 years ago,” he said.
He hopes this new research proves that social interactions can be lifesaving, and prompts new resources to become available to veterans.
“For those of us that have been through it, we already knew that,” Norrie said. “When you serve together, everybody's watching each other's back...When you get out. It seems like all of that's lost, but it's not. The veteran community is there to support each other.”
Na and Pietrzak plan to expand their research. The study focused on European-American veterans, and they hope examine markers of suicide risk in a larger group of veterans that represent different racial, cultural, and gender diversity.
Suicide Prevention Resources
Anyone who lives in Connecticut can call 2-1-1 and press 1. If outside of CT, you can call 1-800-273 8255.
You can also text CT to 741741 from anywhere in the U.S. to text with a trained Crisis Counselor.