Study: Different emotions may drive male, female Veterans to attempt suicide


A new study finds that a much different set of emotions may have driven male and female Veterans to attempt suicide.

The findings appeared online in the journal Social Science & Medicine in September 2020.

In interviews with the researchers, 25 male Veterans and 25 female Veterans who had made a recent suicide attempt discussed their suicidal thoughts. In the moments before they tried taking their lives, the women recalled feeling “shameful,” “tainted,” and “worthless.” The men talked about feeling overwhelmed and remembered thinking, “it just wasn’t worth it,” “I’ve had enough,” and “screw this.”

The researchers also found that experiences related to self-concept, power, relationships, coping and stress were key contributors to the Veterans’ suicide attempts. These experiences often differed by gender.

Dr. Lauren Denneson, a specialist in social psychology and public health at the VA Portland Health Care System, led the study.

Researcher surprised by gender differences

“Our findings suggest that women and men have very different precipitating thoughts when they decide to take their own lives,” she says. “Women feel personally like they are not worth anything, and men feel like the world has sort of let them down.”

Denneson pursued the study largely because of the growing suicide rate among female Veterans and because suicide prevention research has been based mostly on men. She also felt it important to gain a better understanding of suicide risk based on the experiences of Veterans with recent suicide attempts. The results were not exactly what she expected.

“I was keeping a very open mind about whether we might see gender differences and what those differences might be,” she says. “I was surprised by how clearly different some of the experiences were by gender.”

Findings may help pinpoint treatment needsGender differences in suicidal thinking.

Denneson thinks the findings may provide clinicians with a better understanding of women Veterans who are at risk for suicide and how their treatment needs may differ from those of men. That means, for example, clinicians may take a different approach when using a  psychotherapy like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), especially with treatment goals or suggested homework, she says. CBT, which is often used in VA, aims to change negative patterns of thinking or behavior that underlie people’s difficulties, and to improve the way they feel by challenging unhelpful thinking patterns.

“We saw how much the traumatic experiences women had in relationships, for example, through intimate partner violence and military sexual trauma, and the perceived rejection by others, played a role in their sense of worth,” Denneson says. “Given that, it seems important to increase women’s sense of self-worth to reduce their risk of suicide. But perhaps it would be most impactful if this occurred in the context of positive relationships.

“For the men, we saw how frustrated they were with the many challenges and setbacks they experienced,” she adds. “At the same time, they talked about life being pointless and not worth the struggle. So it seemed that a clearer sense of purpose might make the struggle seem more ‘worth it,’ and having successful experiences may get them closer to feeling like they’re living the life they want to live, or at least that they have the ability to get there.”

Female Veteran suicide rates on the rise

Suicide prevention is VA’s top clinical priority. The department says an average of 17 Veterans die by suicide every day. VA’s 2019 National Veteran Suicide Prevention Annual Report notes that in 2017—the most recent year for which data are available—the suicide rate for Veterans was 1.5 times the rate for non-Veterans, after adjusting for population differences in age and sex, and 2.2 times the rate for female Veterans compared to non-Veteran women.

Plus, the suicide rate among women Veterans rose 61% between 2005 and 2017, compared with 43% for men, according to the VA report.

More Information

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Mike Richman

Mike Richman is a writer and editor in VA Research Communications. He joined VA in 2016 after working for 15 years at the Voice of America.

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