There's something missing from research on veteran suicides

There's something missing from research on veteran suicides
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There are countless studies that show the risk of suicide is higher among those who served in the military when compared to civilians.

The Department of Veteran Affairs recognizes this issue and is taking steps to better identify and support those who served who are at risk of taking their own life. While there is a large catalogue of research analyzing suicide rates of those who served in the military, many of these studies overlook key factors that could help policymakers understand the full scope of this issue and, in turn, develop more effective preventative programs.

Here are a few of the elements that researchers should be incorporating into their studies:

A Local Perspective

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Many military suicide studies focus on trends from a national scale, while those that do incorporate a regional or local perspective typically extrapolate data from the federal level and apply findings to the county level. This methodology ignores the unique social and cultural influences present within different communities, each of which can have distinct effects on those who served. Additionally, studies that focus solely on national trends don’t take into consideration that impact that support from services outside of federal programs can have on outlooks of those who served in the military.

To better complement the findings of national studies, researchers should take a reverse approach that focuses on data and insight pulled directly from local communities. In addition to data, studies should incorporate the perspective of the people who actually live and interact with those who served who are at-risk within the community.

Individuals such as county medical examiners and representatives from local support organizations can provide researchers with an in-depth understanding of the social, political and cultural traits that are unique to a particular region of the country.

Broader Classifications of Veterans

A veteran is generally defined as someone who served in the active military, naval or air service for 90 days or more and was discharged under conditions other than dishonorable. However, a majority of national veteran suicide research only focuses on veterans who were honorably discharged and are associated with the VA, which typically means they qualify to receive VA services.

Because of this, most of the data on suicide rates of those who served does not account for veterans who received an Other Than Honorable, General or Dishonorable discharge.

Additionally, this narrow definition leaves out those who served who are not affiliated with the VA, even if they were honorably discharged. To truly understand how military experience may impact someone’s risk of taking his or her own life, research needs to account for those who served in the military who were discharged under less-than-Honorable conditions.

Cases of Self-Harm

In addition to different definitions of who is considered a veteran, studies should also consider differences in how suicides are categorized. Recognizing accidental deaths caused by self-harm, such as drug overdoses or vehicular accidents, as suicides may vary depending on regional differences.

To ensure researchers have the most complete picture possible of the military community, both nationally and locally, studies should include cases of suspected suicide or accidental death caused by self-harm. In addition to providing a critical dimension to the overall research, this inclusion could shine light on previously unknown factors impacting a person’s risk of taking his or her own life.

Fortunately, there are research teams starting to take a close look at the unique elements that may place those who served at a higher risk of taking their own life or self-harm.

For example, my organization, America’s Warrior Partnership, is partnering with the University of Alabama on a newly announced project called Operation Deep Dive, funded largely by a $2.9 million grant from Bristol-Myers Squibb. This four-year study will determine how factors such as local community support and the impact of less than honorable discharges can have on the suicide rate of those who served.

As our project, and others like it, release new findings in the years ahead, there will soon be a more comprehensive body of research available to assist policymakers and community leaders in developing more effective programs for identifying and supporting those who served who are at-risk.

Jim Lorraine is president and CEO of America’s Warrior Partnership, a national non-profit that helps veteran service organizations connect with veterans, military members and families in need.