SAN DIEGO – A new study reports that about half of assessed U.S. veterans with schizophrenia or bipolar I disorder have tried to kill themselves. Nearly 70% of those with schizophrenia had documented suicidal behavior or ideation, as did more than 82% of those with bipolar I disorder.
“The VA struggles to predict suicidal ideation and behavior,” said study lead author Philip D. Harvey, PhD, of the Carter VA Medical Center in Miami, in an interview. “These data suggest that having one of these diagnoses is a major risk factor. Regular assessment makes considerable sense.”
released the study findings in a poster at the annual meeting of the American Psychiatric Association.
For the study, Dr. Harvey and his colleagues examined findings from a VA research project into the genetics behind functional disability in schizophrenia and bipolar illness.
“We know that suicide risk is higher in veterans than in the general population. We also know that the current focus is on returning veterans who were deployed in combat operations,” said Dr. Harvey, who also is affiliated with the University of Miami. “We wanted to evaluate the risk for suicidal ideation and behavior in the segment of the veteran population who have recently or ever been exposed to military trauma.”
The project assessed VA patients with schizophrenia (N = 3,941) or bipolar I disorder (N = 5,414) through in-person evaluations regarding issues like cognitive and functional status, and history of posttraumatic stress disorder. All of the subjects were outpatients at 26 VA medical centers.
Combined, the mean age of the study participants was 53.6 years, plus or minus 11 years, and 86.2% were male. Whites made up 57.4% of the sample, followed by blacks (37.0%) and other (5.6%). A total of 27% had no comorbid psychiatric conditions.
The study authors found documented suicidal ideation or suicidal behavior in 69.9% of veterans with schizophrenia and 82.3% of those with bipolar disorder; the percentages who reported making actual suicide attempts was 46.1% schizophrenia and 54.5% bipolar disorder.
The risk of suicidal ideation was lower in schizophrenia vs. bipolar disorder (odds ratio, 0.82; 95% confidence interval, 0.71-0.95), as was suicidal behavior (OR, 0.81; 95% CI, 0.71-0.93).
Dr. Harvey said this is not surprising. “The combination of a history of euphoric mood and significant depression [characteristic of bipolar disorder] is very challenging.”
Other factors lowered risk: College education vs. high school or less (OR, 0.82; 95% CI, 0.67-1.00 for ideation; OR, 0.70; 95% CI, 0.58-0.84 for behavior). In addition, lower risk was found among black vs. white patients (OR, 0.72; 95% CI, 0.63-0.84 for ideation; OR, 0.82; 95% CI, 0.72-0.93, for behavior).
These factors boosted risk: multiple psychiatric comorbidities vs. none (OR, 2.61; 95% CI, 2.22-3.07 for ideation; OR, 3.82; 95% CI, 3.30-4.41, for behavior), and those with a history of being ever vs. never married (OR, 1.18; 95% CI, 1.02-1.37 for ideation; OR, 1.36; 95% CI, 1.19-1.55, for behavior). Most of those who had been married later were divorced.
“These findings underscore the need for continuous monitoring for suicidality in veteran populations, regardless of age or psychiatric diagnosis, and especially with multiple psychiatric comorbidities,” the authors wrote.
The study was funded by the Department of Veterans Affairs Cooperative Study Program. Dr. Harvey reported no relevant disclosures.