Around 32,000 people commit suicide in the U.S. each year; 20 percent of those suicides are veterans. Traditionally, when we think of suicide among vets, we think of men. But this week, for the first time, a sizable study was published that looked specifically at female veterans and suicide.
Dr. Jan Kemp, who runs the Department of Veterans Affairs' National Suicide Prevention Hotline, says that about a year ago, her office got a call from a female vet who had recently returned from abroad. The woman explained that she was in a car, in a remote area, and was calling the hot line because she needed it to relay a message.
"She had had a recent argument with her husband and had come to the conclusion that he and her two young children would be better off without her," Kemp said. "She had [post-traumatic stress disorder]. She had a history of MST — military sexual trauma — and she just couldn't get it together — and was tired of trying. So she had gathered up a lot of pills, she had them with her, and she called us because she wanted us to let him know that it wasn't his fault, that she was doing this for him.
"And we could hear her actually get out of the car and start walking through the woods."
Before the line went dead though, a worker at the hot line figured out the woman's local VA office and called it. The office identified the woman and then called her husband, who gave the police a description of her car.
"We were able to get the authorities to start driving around those backcountry roads till they found the car and followed her path in through the woods and found her," Kemp said.
The woman — groggy and practically unconscious — was carried to the hospital and saved, which, in a way, makes this a happy story. But there aren't happy stories for everybody.
The journal Psychiatric Services published this week the first large-scale study of suicide among female veterans. To do the study, Portland State University researcher Mark Kaplan collected information about all the female deaths by suicide in 16 states.
He then compared the rate of suicide among female veterans to the rate of suicide among female civilians, and found that in general female vets are much more likely to commit suicide than their civilian peers, especially, Kaplan says, younger vets.
"Female veterans — age 18 to 34 — are three times as likely as their civilian peers to die by suicide," he said.
That's a very big difference. Because historically there have been many more men than women in the military, the problem of female suicide hasn't received much attention. But the armed forces are integrating: In the current wars, women are on increasingly on the frontlines.
Kaplan says he wants people to take suicide among female vets more seriously.
"When we think of suicide, and suicide completion, I don't think we often think of women enough," he said. "That's my point."
Kemp, the director of the suicide hot line, agrees with Kaplan. And though she says the underlying problems of adjustment and PTSD are similar for both men and women, there are some differences. Many of the women who call her hot line, she says, are struggling to deal with military rapes they experienced during their deployments. And the women who call, Kemp says, talk much more about their children.
"They worry that because they sometimes get angry and don't deal with things well that they won't be appropriate with their kids," she said. "And I think that is one of the things that it most poignant on the hot line is when young mothers call and they're concerned about their ability to take care of their children because of their problems."
In the coming decades, both Kemp and Kaplan say, more women will work on the frontlines of war. An increase in female suicide, this study suggests, is likely to follow.