Study Seeks PTSD Symptoms That Increase Suicide Risk

Written by: CEHD Communications Staff
Post date: January 06, 2011

Courtesy The Austin American-Statesman A Texas A&M University researcher is mining a unique database in hopes of helping clinicians identify the symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder that increase the risk of suicide among combat veterans.

Edgar Villarreal, a doctoral student in counseling psychology, is aiming to determine which specific symptoms of PTSD — which include sleeplessness, nightmares, flashbacks, hypervigilance and feeling emotionally numb — might have a more direct link to suicide, in hopes of saving lives.

"If we are able to identify specific symptoms earlier in the process, we can integrate more specific interventions," Villarreal said. "With more education, more intervention, there's a chance you can minimize the risk for suicide." Villarreal, 26, said he hopes to complete the study by August.

Although record suicide rates among active duty service members grab most of the headlines, suicides among veterans, while harder to track, far outpace their active duty counterparts. According to a U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs study last year, an average of 18 veterans a day commit suicide.

The VA found that suicides among veterans ages 18 to 29 climbed 26 percent between 2005 and 2007 and that about 20 percent of the nation's 30,000 annual suicides are by veterans.

"We know the effects of PTSD and (traumatic brain injury) are not immediate in all cases," Villarreal said. "And there is still stigma. Many won't reach out for mental health services for months or years after they are discharged from active duty."

According to various studies, about 20 percent of veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan carry psychological ailments such as PTSD and major depression. Timothy Elliot, a professor of counseling psychology who is working with Villarreal on the project, said the influx of new veterans into the VA system is spurring researchers and clinicians to look at new ways to help.

"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," he said in a statement.

To conduct his research, Villarreal is using a database on suicide factors maintained by the VA's Mental Illness Research, Education and Clinical Center in Denver.

The center, which focuses on treatment strategies for suicide prevention, is conducting more than a dozen studies on veteran suicide, looking at everything from new ways to treat schizophrenia to therapeutic strategies for alcohol dependence.

Villarreal said the database he's using includes information on about 200 veterans of Iraq, Afghanistan and Vietnam who have sought mental health help or attempted suicide.

Some have PTSD, a traumatic brain injury or both, Villarreal said. For Villarreal, the issue is a personal one. His brother is a captain in the U.S. Army, and as a past member of A&M's Corps of Cadets, he saw many of his own friends go off to active duty and serve multiple tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. "I felt there were still a lot of questions to be answered," he said.