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HealthBeat

Loneliness is deadliest enemy of suicidal veterans

A new study shows that loneliness – not war-related trauma – is the primary enemy most veterans face after service.

Researchers at Yale University and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs followed 2,000 veterans over a four-year period. The goal was to understand why studies show that veterans are more than twice as likely to kill themselves as their civilian counterparts.

“We sought to identify early warning signs of suicide risk in this population, much like high blood pressure and cholesterol levels can help predict heart disease,” said lead author Robert H. Pietrzak, with Veterans Affairs’ National Center for PTSD and an associate professor of psychiatry at Yale.

The veterans reflected the military veteran population as a whole – average age of 62 and two-thirds never saw combat – and had never had suicidal thoughts at the time of enrollment.

During the four-year period, 7.5 percent of veterans developed suicidal thoughts. The top risk factor was loneliness. Other risk factors included disability, post-traumatic stress and related psychiatric issues, symptoms of physical illness and alcohol use problems.

The study also identified factors that protected against the development of suicidal thoughts. Veterans who had greater social support, exhibited greater curiosity, had confidence in their ability to “bounce back” and accepted past traumas were less likely to develop suicidal thoughts.

“Results of this study suggest that preventing suicidal thinking may not only be about fixing what is wrong, but also building what is strong,” Pietrzak said.

Marissa Harshman

I'm the health reporter for The Columbian newspaper in Vancouver, Wash. I started at The Columbian -- my hometown newspaper -- in September 2009. Reach me at marissa.harshman@columbian.com or 360-735-4546.

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