Female veterans commit suicide at nearly six times the rate of civilian women and at rates nearly equal to that of male veterans, according to new government statistics which expose disturbing questions about the experiences of women who serve in the armed forces.
A cross-sectional study published in Psychiatric Services, which compiled 11 years' worth of data from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), found that 28.7 out of every 100,000 servicewomen committed suicide in 23 states between 2000 and 2010, compared to 5.2 non-military women.
Rates were highest among younger veterans, with women in the 18-29 age range being nearly 12 times as likely to commit suicide than non-veterans.
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The LA Times, which first reported on the study on Monday, writes:
It is not clear what is driving the rates. VA researchers and experts who reviewed the data for The Times said there were myriad possibilities, including whether the military had disproportionately drawn women at higher suicide risk and whether sexual assault and other traumatic experiences while serving played a role.
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Whatever the causes, the consistency across age groups suggests a long-standing pattern.
The study was conducted by Claire Hoffmire, a VA epidemiologist; Dr. Janet Kemp, associate director of the Department of Veterans Affairs' National Suicide Prevention Hotline; and Dr. Robert Bossarte, director of the VA Epidemiology Program.
The LA Times continues:
Hoffmire pointed to recent research showing that men and women who join the military are more likely to have endured difficult childhoods, including emotional and sexual abuse.
...Though the U.S. military has long provided camaraderie and a sense of purpose to men, it has been a harsher place for women. "They lack a sense of belonging," said Leisa Meyer, a historian at the College of William and Mary in Virginia and an expert on women in the military.
In an interview with NPR in 2010, Kemp said many of the women who call the VA's hotline are grappling not only with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and readjustment issues, but also with rape and sexual assault they endured while in the military. Moreover, she said at the time, they worry about how their PTSD affects their children.
"They worry that because they sometimes get angry and don't deal with things well that they won't be appropriate with their kids," Kemp told NPR. "And I think that is one of the things that it most poignant on the hot line is when young mothers call and they're concerned about their ability to take care of their children because of their problems."
The newest statistics are "staggering," Dr. Matthew Miller, an epidemiologist and suicide expert at Northeastern University who was not involved in the research, told the LA Times on Monday. "We have to come to grips with why the rates are so obscenely high."