Suicide is a leading cause of non-natural death among older veterans. Rates of suicide among veterans are nearly double that of the general population. Many veterans struggle with mental health problems, including posttraumatic stress (PTSD), drug or alcohol abuse, and depression as a result of having been in combat. With increased access to firearms and knowledge of how to use them, these individuals are more likely to act on suicidal thoughts when they occur. Additionally, older veterans, many of whom are unemployed and impoverished, often remain isolated, and if they do attempt suicide, will likely be left unattended for long periods of time, making their chances of survival even slimmer. Sadly, veterans struggle with other issues that can result from their mental health problems, including homelessness. These individuals are more likely to suffer with mental and physical health problems and poverty because of their homelessness. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that nearly 75,000 veterans are homeless, many of who are older and at significant risk for suicide.
In an attempt to understand how homelessness and suicidal behavior affect each other in the veteran population, John A. Schinka of the Veterans Affairs National Center on Homelessness Among Veterans and the Department of Psychiatry at the University of South Florida recently conducted a study examining how transitional housing programs affected suicide rates. Schinka analyzed data from over 10,000 homeless veterans who were part of a program designed to provide transitional living accommodations over 6 years. Prior to entering the program, nearly 12% of the vets had thought about suicide, and 3% had tried to commit suicide in the month prior. Schinka discovered that suicidal behavior did not increase or decrease the veterans’ likelihood of transitioning into homes.
However, Shinka did realize that the older veterans most at risk for suicide were those with a history of depression. Although many had other mental health challenges, such as drug and alcohol dependency and PTSD, depression was the leading indicator of suicidal behaviors in the older homeless veterans. The results of this study shed some light on the risk factors for our oldest soldiers, but more work is needed. Schinka added, “Future studies of older homeless veterans would be most valuable if they employed longitudinal approaches to determine the signiﬁcance of suicidal behavior on long-term homelessness, long-term housing intervention outcomes, health care access, health status, and mortality.”
Schinka, J. A., Schinka, K. C., Casey, R. J., Kasprow, W., Bossarte, R. M. Suicidal behavior in a national sample of older homeless veterans. American Journal of Public Health 102.S1 (2012): S147-153.
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