Killing in war linked with suicidal thoughts among Vietnam veterans, study finds

April 18, 2012

The experience of killing in war was strongly associated with thoughts of suicide, in a study of Vietnam-era veterans led by researchers at the San Francisco VA Medical Center (SFVAMC) and the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF).

The scientists found that with more involving killing were twice as likely to have reported as veterans who had fewer or no experiences.

To evaluate the experience of killing, the authors created four variables – killing enemy combatants, killing prisoners, killing civilians in general and killing or injuring women, children or the elderly. For each veteran, they combined those variables into a single composite measure. The higher the composite score, the greater the likelihood that a veteran had thought about suicide.

The relationship between killing and suicidal thoughts held even after the scientists adjusted for variables including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, substance use disorders and exposure to combat.

The study, which was published electronically on April 13 in the journal Depression and Anxiety, was based on an analysis of data from the National Vietnam Veterans Readjustment Survey, a comprehensive study of a nationally representative sample of Vietnam-era veterans.

The authors cited other research indicating that veterans are at elevated risk of suicide compared to people with no military service. They noted that by 2009, the suicide rate in the U.S. Army had risen to 21.8 per 100,000 soldiers, a rate exceeding that of the general population.

"The VA has a lot of very good programs, including programs targeting suicide prevention. Our goal is to make those programs even stronger," said lead author Shira Maguen, a clinical psychologist at SFVAMC and an assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at UCSF. "We want clinicians and suicide prevention coordinators to be aware that in analyzing a veteran's risk of suicide, killing in combat is an additional factor that they may or may not be aware of."

Notably, the scientists found that the only variable with a significant link to actual suicide attempts among the veterans was PTSD – a finding that replicated earlier studies, according to Maguen. Thus, she said, the link between killing and suicide attempts was not as significant as the link between killing and suicidal thoughts.

Maguen noted that, currently, the mental health impact of killing is not formally evaluated as part of VA or Department of Defense mental health treatments, nor typically taken into consideration when assessing a veteran's risk of .

"We know from our previous research how hard it is to talk about killing," Maguen cautioned. "It's important that we as care providers have these conversations with veterans in a supportive, therapeutic environment so that they will feel comfortable talking about their experiences."

The overall goal, she said, "is to look back and understand some lessons of the past that we can apply to the present. Talking with people who have had suicidal thoughts can potentially give us insights into why suicides occur, and hopefully help us prevent them."

Explore further: Study suggests feelings of guilt may be a top factor in PTSD

Related Stories

Study suggests feelings of guilt may be a top factor in PTSD

December 6, 2011
A leading cause of post-traumatic stress disorder is guilt that troops experience because of moral dilemmas faced in combat, according to preliminary findings of a study of active-duty Marines.

Almost one third of Iraq/Afghanistan women veterans with PTSD report military sexual trauma

September 15, 2011
Thirty-one percent of women veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan who were diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder reported military sexual trauma (MST), in contrast to one percent of men with PTSD, according to a study ...

Women soldiers see more combat than in prior eras, have same PTSD rate as men, study says

January 16, 2012
(Medical Xpress) -- Women who served in the U.S. Army in Iraq and Afghanistan were involved in combat at significantly higher rates than in previous conflicts, and screened positive for post-traumatic stress disorder at the ...

Recommended for you

Study provides hope that schizophrenia isn't as deep-rooted in affected individuals as previously believed

December 8, 2017
A schizophrenia patient's own perceptions of their experiences—and confidence in their judgments—may be factors that can help them overcome challenges to get the life they wish, suggests a new paper published in Clinical ...

The evolutionary advantage of the teenage brain

December 7, 2017
The mood swings, the fiery emotions, the delusions of immortality, all the things that make a teenager a teenager might just seem like a phase we all have to put up with. However, research increasingly shows that the behaviors ...

Study reveals gap in life expectancy for people with mental illness

December 7, 2017
New research from The Australian National University (ANU) has found that men who are diagnosed with a mental health condition in their lifetime can expect to live 10.2 years less than those who aren't, and women 7.3 years.

Reading on electronic devices may interfere with science reading comprehension

December 6, 2017
People who often read on electronic devices may have a difficult time understanding scientific concepts, according to a team of researchers. They suggest that this finding, among others in the study, could also offer insights ...

Study suggests giving kids too many toys stifles their creativity

December 6, 2017
(Medical Xpress)—A team of researchers at the University of Toledo in the U.S. has found that children are more creative when they have fewer toys to play with at one time. In their paper published in the journal Infant ...

Psychosis incidence highly variable internationally

December 6, 2017
Rates of psychosis can be close to eight times higher in some regions compared to others, finds a new study led by researchers at UCL, King's College London and the University of Cambridge.

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.