Depression Key Risk Factor for Suicide in Homeless Veterans

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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The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Copeland V

    Copeland V

    March 28th, 2012 at 3:01 PM

    This is so sad, because think of how much these men have given up fighting for us and they become at such high risk for taking their own lives as a direct result of this service that they so willingly gave. You would think that their families would step up to help take care of them after they have returned from service, but I guess there are a lot of vets who kind of fall through the cracks and find themselves coming back home but with really no home to come home to. I know that many have had hard times with securing jobs and all of that after being out of the traditional workforce, so that has made making a living more difficult for them than for others of us. But you do wish that they could find a little more support and helpful services when they come home which could then hopefully help to stop some of this increased risk for depression and suicide later on.

  • zxy


    March 28th, 2012 at 11:47 PM

    not to take anything away from these brave individuals,but war and violence has never given anything except problems for mankind.i dont suggest we sit unarmed when the enemy approaches but this hatred and violence(no matter who it comes from) does absolutely no good for mankind.

  • uproarious


    March 29th, 2012 at 4:09 AM

    Well I hate to point out the obvious but doesn’t it go without saying that depression will increase suicide risk for anyone?

  • August


    March 29th, 2012 at 2:48 PM

    The VA’s “Housing” for homeless veterans IS NOT HOUSING; it’s prison-like & all-controlling, with mandatory 12-Step religious cult & “Jesus Saves” indoctrination, 24/7 baby-sitting by staff, armed guards, and snitches…

    You’d want to kill yourself after being disrespected & slandered daily by the VA, in addition to not being allowed any privacy at all.

  • June


    March 29th, 2012 at 3:41 PM

    I don’t like to be so negative about all of this, but don’t you think that there ARE a lot of services available to veterans when they come home that could help to prevent a lot of this if only they would be willing to admit that there is a problem and that they need help? I have known these tough military types and it is like for most of them they would rather stick a fork in their eye than admit that they need some help in their personla life. The resources are out there, and maybe they don’t know where to find them, but they are there and a lot more readily available to them than to the rest of the general public.

  • Justin


    March 30th, 2012 at 4:21 AM

    @ June- while I agree with you that there are a lot of services available for vets, you have to realize that these are proud men and women and for them to seek mental health education and help feels for a lot of the that they are admitting failure. They are supposed to be tough, and they are, but they see needing help as a weakness. I know that most of us don’t feel that way, and we have tried to educate these clients that it is only weak when you won’t ask for help. But most of them have put up a wall and refuse any help along these lines. So there has to be more out reach to them, going to them instead of always assuming that when they need us they will seek us out.

  • tolly garrison

    tolly garrison

    March 30th, 2012 at 3:22 PM

    Think about the cumulative number of years that many veterans have been dealing with these things privately, hoping that they would go away on their own but they never do. That is an awfully large burden to carry with you day after day and year after year. High suicide rates are certainly understandable, but just knowing that information in no way makes it any easier for families to cope with those losses when it happens to someone that you love.

  • DAV February

    DAV February

    March 31st, 2012 at 11:56 PM

    I don’t want anything to do with government or military assistance. I don’t trust government doctors. They are the very ones with whom trust, faith, and honor has been broken.

    There is no doctor/patient privacy. There is no confidence that recovery is the mission objective.

    Why, after all this time, after all the pain and suffering… would (should) any suffering vet hope that there is honest, sincere, help available…

    Some may be able to catch themselves on the way down/out if they are willing, have the capacity to be honest, and are openminded. However, for many, bottoming out is death — there is no living bottom. And that is a release from suffering. And there is nothing you or anyone can or should do to prevent it.

    There is a strong, compassionate argument that can be made for legally sanctioned, pharmaceutically assisted self-sacrifice.

    The military is not summer camp. There are ugly realities that we as veterans intimately understand.

    Our society used to know the true cost of war… but our culture has been anesthetized by decades of media and financial shenanigans — to the point that this very discussion straddles the fence between the rational and the surreal.

    Boys were turned into killing machines and then returned to civil society after years of tragedy… what do you expect? Mall guards and little league coaches?

    Sure, some may return to contribute positively to society. But don’t be surprised when a disproportionate number return as a significant burden. Veterans are as you made them…

  • Iris


    April 1st, 2012 at 11:27 AM

    Wouldn’t you be depressed too and maybe feel a little like ending it all if you came home, and found that you actually did not have a home anymore, or the means to keep a home, and felt like nobody cared?

    I think that I woujld consider the alternatives to that kind of life too.

  • Steve D.

    Steve D.

    April 11th, 2012 at 3:15 AM

    I have gone to VA help for homelessness and mental health issues, they stuck me in places with non vet addicts, criminals and everywhere I went I was spoken to and treated like a two year old child. I lost my job due to medical problem at the same time went through a divorce so I lost everything and became homeless, there was no drug’s or alcohol or legal issue’s but they stuck me with people who had all of these plus more. The VA made me worse than when I started with them by the degradation and humiliation they put me through. They’re going to kill me! The worse thing is how they treat you like a child when you once fought for their safety.

  • Steve D.

    Steve D.

    April 11th, 2012 at 3:21 AM

    I have walked out of therapy sessions because the therapist talked as though they were talking to a group of second grader’s. can anybody please tell me why they communicate in this manor? why do they turn you into a six year old child instead of talking to you like they would any other adult with reasonable intellegence, I really would like to know the theraputic justice for this so I don’t walk out on help I could use!

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