TUESDAY, June 12 (HealthDay News) -- Male U.S. military veterans are twice as likely to commit suicide as men who haven't served in the armed forces, a new study claims.
These findings suggest that doctors should look for signs of suicidal intentions among soldiers returning from service in Afghanistan and Iraq, the researchers said.
"Male veterans are twice as likely as their civilian counterparts to die by suicide," said study author Mark Kaplan, a professor of community health at Portland State University. "We don't understand why. But this finding may foreshadow what is going to come with the current cohort of military personnel who have served in Afghanistan and Iraq."
For the study, Kaplan's team collected data on 320,000 men over age 18 who participated in the National Health Interview Survey. The men were followed for 12 years.
The researchers found that men who had served in the military at some time between 1917 and 1994 were twice as likely to die from suicide than men in the general population.
Veterans were also more likely to own guns and commit suicide with a gun, Kaplan said. In fact, veterans were 58 percent more likely to use a gun to kill themselves.
According to Kaplan, the risk for suicide was highest among men whose activities were limited by health problems. In addition, veterans who killed themselves were more likely to be older, white, better educated and married.
However, overweight veterans were less likely to kill themselves than those of normal weight, the researchers also found.
The number of veterans who commit suicide is much larger than has been previously reported, Kaplan contended, adding that earlier studies were based on data from the U.S. Veterans Administration.
"Most veterans don't seek or receive medical care through the Veterans Administration system," Kaplan said. "So we have to be careful about earlier studies."
"The main finding of this study resolves an important and timely question of considerable importance," said Dr. Randall Marshall, director of Trauma Studies at New York State Psychiatric Institute in New York City.
Previous research had focused on veterans whose health-care needs were being served by VA centers, and also primarily on Vietnam veterans, Marshall explained.
"This study also brings to light the important, but rarely appreciated, fact that the majority of U.S. veterans are not in the VA system," he said.
"Health-care providers should take note of this finding now, and consider military service as a risk factor for suicide," Marshall added. "Assessing for suicide risk is a skill in itself, and professional organizations should offer training in how to ask about suicidal thoughts and, most importantly, treatable risk factors such as major depression, PTSD and substance use disorders."
Kaplan expects that suicide rates among veterans returning from Afghanistan and Iraq will follow a similar pattern to his research results.
"We are confident that these trends will continue," he said. "This is a population that needs to be screened and monitored upon their return to the United States."
In addition, primary-care doctors need to be on the lookout for signs of depression or suicidal thoughts or behaviors among veterans who served in Afghanistan and Iraq, Kaplan said.
The new study is published in the July issue of the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health.
For more information on suicide, visit the U.S. National Institute on Mental Health.
SOURCES: Mark Kaplan, Dr.PH., professor, community health, School of Community Health, Portland State University, Oregon; Randall D. Marshall, M.D., director, Trauma Studies and Services, New York State Psychiatric Institute, and associate professor, clinical psychiatry, Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, New York City; July 2007 Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health