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Traumatic Brain Injury Linked to Suicide Risk Among Military Veterans: Study

Veterans who have suffered a traumatic brain injury (TBIs) appear to face an increased risk of suicide, indicate the findings of a new study. 

Researchers from the VHA Rocky Mountain Mental Illness Research Education and Clinical Center published findings earlier this month in The Journal of Head Trauma Rehabilitation, which found that not only were veterans more likely to commit suicide if they suffered a TBI, but they were also more likely to use a gun to do it.

Traumatic brain injury occurs from a severe or mild blow (a concussion) to the head, and often causes a loss of consciousness, skull fracture, or internal bleeding.

The study looked at the records of more than 1.4 million veterans who received care from the U.S. Veterans Health Administration (VHA) between 2005 and 2015. More than 215,000 veterans with a head injury diagnosis were compared to more than 1.2 million veterans without brain trauma.

Researchers compared the severity of traumatic brain injury with diagnoses of psychiatric and other medical conditions. According to their findings, the risk of suicide was twice as higher for veterans with a TBI than those without TBIs. Patients with moderate or severe TBI were 2.45 times more likely to die by suicide than those without TBI. The researchers also found that the risk of suicide increased with the severity of the brain trauma.

Moderate-to-severe TBI was linked to a significantly increased risk of using a gun to commit suicide. Overall, veterans who died by suicide were 68% more likely to use guns and 78% more likely if they had moderate or severe TBIs.

Prior studies have shown any person who suffers a brain injury faces an increased risk of suicide. Some studies have shown even mild concussions can lead to a higher risk of suicide. Some researchers speculate this may be because head injuries often lead to changes in mood and mental status and increase the risk of suffering from depression.

Veterans have a disproportionate risk of committing suicide overall. The suicide rate among veterans is 1.5 times higher than among civilian adults. That rate increases if they’ve also suffered a head injury.

Traumatic brain injuries are also one of the leading causes of death and permanent disability worldwide and can lead to extensive medical treatment.

Survivors of brain trauma face triple the risk of death from any cause, according to one study. Research has also linked suffering a TBI to increased risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease and increased risk of dementia later in life.

Similarly, over the past 20 years suicide rates have continued to rise in the U.S and death by suicide is now the tenth leading cause of death.

Researchers emphasized the need to implement screening initiatives for lifetime history of brain trauma among veterans using the VHA program. While the study does not prove cause and effect between suicide and head injury, it does show a link, the researchers concluded. However, they said more research is needed to show how the two are linked and how gun safety factors into traumatic head injury.

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