Vets in recent wars have higher suicide risks, study shows

Justin and Joanna Eldridge

Photo Courtesy of Eldridge Family

Justin and Joanna Eldridge

Justin Eldridge’s family will never fully understand why nothing seemed to ease the anguish of the young Marine and father of five, as he wrestled with post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury after a deployment to Afghanistan in 2004-05.

Despite stints in VA hospitals and an array of medications, he killed himself in his Waterford home on Oct. 28, 2013. He was 31.

“He did his part – he followed the treatment they gave him,” said his widow, Joanna Eldridge, who is now raising their children alone. “It just wasn’t enough, in terms of following up with him and figuring out why he wasn’t getting better . . . We just have to do better at helping these guys after they get home.”

A new study suggests that the suicide risk for Eldridge and other veterans who served in the recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is significantly higher – 41 to 61 percent higher — than for the general population. The study, led by Department of Veterans Affairs and Army researchers, is the most comprehensive look to date at the suicide risk for veterans who were on active duty during the recent wars.

The analysis – to be published next month in the journal Annals of Epidemiology — found that the suicide rate was the highest among veterans during the first three years after leaving military service, and that the risk was elevated for both deployed and non-deployed service members. Suicide rates were not significantly different for those who deployed once, like Eldridge, and those who deployed multiple times.

The study notes that before the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, the suicide rates among active duty and former military personnel had been 20 to 30 percent lower than the U.S. general population. But the recent wars are “substantially different” from Vietnam or the first Gulf War, with veterans serving longer tours, deploying multiple times, and suffering different kinds of injuries, many from blasts.

In addition, absent a draft, the recent conflicts may have attracted more volunteers “who may have a higher level of risk taking behaviors” and who face economic stress and employment problems when they transition home.

The study comes as U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., pushes efforts to revive a suicide prevention bill that died last year. The bill, which passed the House earlier this month, would require an outside review of existing suicide-prevention programs at the Department of Defense and the VA to gauge their effectiveness, and make recommendations for improvement. It also calls for more online and community outreach mental health services and includes incentives to attract psychiatrists to work with veterans.

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