Professor, Student Work to Understand Veteran Mental Health Issues

Written by: CEHD Communications Staff
Post date: December 14, 2010

On average, 18 veterans commit suicide each day – many with recent war-zone service – according to the Department of Veterans Affairs. Two Texas A&M University psychologists are working to reduce that number as they research mental health issues affecting veterans and suicide prevention.

Due to repeated deployment and the nature of the wounds they sustain in combat, Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans sometimes return home with mental health problems, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), traumatic brain injury or depression, says Timothy Elliott, a counseling psychology professor at Texas A&M. Collaborating on research with Elliott is Edgar Villarreal, a doctoral student in the Department of Educational Psychology.

These mental health issues, as well as other factors such as age and chronic health problems, put veterans at higher risk for suicide, Elliott says.

Over the last two years, Villarreal has worked with the VA’s Mental Illness Research, Education and Clinical Center (MIRREC) in Denver, Colo., which specializes in suicide prevention.

“When clinicians identify their patients as being suicidal, they refer them to the suicide consultation team. The patients go through an extensive interview and diagnostic process,” Villarreal says. “We try to help identify the best treatment plan for these veterans based on their experiences.”

Villarreal also has been helping the MIRREC create a database to track suicidal behaviors and diagnostic factors to reveal the risk of suicide for those veterans with PTSD, traumatic brain injury or both.

"Veterans who were at higher risk for suicide had PTSD,” Villarreal says. “Those who had PTSD and traumatic brain injury were also at risk for suicide, but not as much as those who had PTSD alone.”

Given the influx of new veterans into the VA system and the mental health issues some of them face, researchers and clinicians are looking for new, more effective ways to help, Elliott says.

“The Departments of Veterans Affairs and Defense are working to integrate best practices and protocols related to how we treat health problems and how we study them,” Elliott says.

Earlier this year, Elliott, Villarreal and other graduate students attended the State of the Art Conference, a two-day event held by the VA Rehabilitation Research and Development Office to bring specialists together to address veterans’ health issues.

During the conference, students gathered information for articles they will co-author for a special issue of the Journal of Rehabilitation Research and Development. The goal is to identify and articulate best practices and inform VA policies concerning rehabilitation and mental health treatment.

“Given the most recent rash of suicides around the nation, it is clear that suicide has become an issue for both veterans and non-veterans alike,” Villarreal says. “I hope that through my research and the combined efforts of the Department of Veterans Affairs, we can shed light on this phenomenon and help those who suffer in silence.”