Clinical Review

Understanding, Assessing, and Conceptualizing Suicide Risk Among Veterans With PTSD

A thorough clinical interview combined with self-report measures can help gauge suicide risk.

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Increased risk of suicide among veterans with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is well established. Posttraumatic stress disorder and related consequences are associated with higher rates of suicidal ideation and suicidal self-directed violence (S-SDV).1 Based on a systematic review, several explanations for this relationship have been hypothesized.1 Particular emphasis has been placed on trauma type (eg, premilitary childhood abuse, combat exposure), frequency of trauma exposure (ie, a single traumatic episode vs multiple traumatic experiences), specific PTSD symptoms (eg, avoidance, sleep disturbance, alteration in mood and cognitions, risky behaviors), and other psychosocial consequences associated with PTSD (eg, low social support, psychiatric comorbidity, substance use). However, there is limited understanding regarding how to conceptualize and assess risk for suicide when treating veterans who have PTSD.

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PTSD and the Interpersonal-Psychological Theory of Suicide

Although PTSD is associated with risk for S-SDV among veterans, a diagnosis-specific approach to conceptualizing risk of suicide (ie, an explanation specific to PTSD) might not be enough because most individuals with a psychiatric diagnosis do not engage in S-SDV.2 Rather, theories that are able to conceptualize suicide risk across many different psychiatric diagnoses are likely to improve mental health providers’ ability to understand risk of suicide. Although many theories attempt to understand suicide risk, the Interpersonal-Psychological Theory of Suicide (IPTS) has robust empirical support.3

The IPTS proposes that suicidal ideation is driven by perceptions of stable and unchanging thwarted belongingness (TB), defined as an unmet psychological need to socially belong, and perceived burdensomeness (PB), defined as the perception that one is a burden on others.4 However, PB and TB are not considered sufficient for S-SDV to occur unless an individual also has acquired the capability for suicide. Capability for suicide is thought to happen when an individual loses the fear of dying by suicide and develops tolerance to physical pain, which is proposed to occur through habituation or repeated exposure to painful stimuli.3

Several studies have examined the IPTS in a number of clinical populations, including veterans and active-duty service members; yet limited research has applied the IPTS to veterans with PTSD.3 However, a recent article proposed that a number of PTSD-related factors increase risk of suicide through the lens of the IPTS.5 In particular, repeated exposure to painful and provocative events—especially those characterized by violence and aggression—might increase acquired capability for suicide by causing habituation to physical pain and discomfort and reducing fear of injury and death. This concept is especially concerning because of the frequent occurrence of both military- (eg, combat, military sexual trauma) and nonmilitary-related (eg, childhood abuse, intimate partner violence) stressful and traumatic events among veterans, especially individuals with PTSD.

Moreover, the acquired capability for suicide correlates highly with anxious, intrusive, and hyperarousal symptoms of PTSD.5-7 Over time, these PTSD symptoms are thought to increase habituation to the physically painful and frightening aspects of S-SDV, resulting in increased pain tolerance and fearlessness about death.3

In addition, PTSD-related cognitive-affective states (ie, thoughts and emotions), such as guilt, shame, and self-deprecation, might drive beliefs of PB and TB.5,8 Repeated exposure to such trauma-related thoughts and emotions could further reinforce beliefs of self-hate or inadequacy (PB).2 Trauma-related beliefs that the world or others are unsafe also might reduce the likelihood of seeking social support, thereby increasing TB.2 The PTSD symptoms of avoidance and self-blame also are likely to reinforce beliefs of PB and TB.2

Assessing Suicide Risk in the Context of PTSD

The IPTS framework is one that can be used by mental health providers to conceptualize risk of suicide across populations and psychiatric diagnoses, including veterans with PTSD. However, integrating additional risk assessment and management techniques is essential to guide appropriate risk stratification and treatment.

One such method of suicide risk assessment and management is therapeutic risk management (TRM).9 Therapeutic risk management involves a stratification process by which temporal aspects (ie, acute and chronic) and severity (ie, low, moderate, and high) of suicide risk are assessed using a combination of clinical interview and psychometrically sound self-report measures, such as the Beck Scale for Suicide Ideation, Beck Hopelessness Scale, and Reasons for Living Inventory. Appropriate clinical interventions that correspond to acute and chronic suicide risk stratification are then implemented (eg, safety planning, lethal means counseling, increasing frequency of care, hospitalization if warranted).

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