Veterans

Can community engagement prevent veteran suicides?

Study looks at participation in community activities.

Mike Richman

Social isolation and feelings of loneliness are associated with suicidal thoughts. Consequently, the more people feel disconnected from their friends, peers and colleagues, the more isolated they become.

One antidote for social isolation is social connectedness. That is, people coming together and interacting. But there's been little research on suicide prevention programs that target social connectedness.


Dr. Jason Chen of the VA Portland Health Care System is leading a study to establish a stronger sense of social connectedness for Veterans at high risk of suicide. He's doing this by increasing their participation in community activities.

Chen and his team have been identifying the community engagement needs and preferences of Veterans who have been hospitalized and evaluated for psychiatric conditions. Specifically, the team interviewed participants within a week of their discharge from an inpatient psychiatric unit. They discovered Veterans analyzed for psychiatric conditions, such as PTSD, are at much greater risk than other cohorts of taking their own lives within three months after leaving the hospital.

Social connection could decrease suicidal thoughts

"When working with Veterans, I noticed that many didn't have social connections," Chen says. "We know that feeling connected to others can be a form of protection against suicide. So I thought to myself, if the Veterans I work with don't have many connections, perhaps we could help them create new connections through community activities. My hope is that by helping Veterans increase their engagement in community activities, they'll feel a stronger sense of social connection that will, in turn, decrease their level of suicidal thoughts.

"The first part of our study was to learn more from Veterans about what gets in the way of connecting. For example, we interviewed 30 Veterans to learn about their past experiences connecting to the community and their thoughts about what would get in the way in the future. Our Veteran sample varied in age from their 20s through their 70s. The average age was 48. We wanted to understand a broad range of experiences across different eras of conflict and generations."

Suicide prevention is VA’s top clinical priority

Eventually, Chen and his colleagues plan to create clinical toolkits for VA and community figures. The toolkits will focus on increasing social connectedness for Veterans in this vulnerable population.

VA considers suicide prevention its top clinical priority. The most updated analysis of Veteran suicide rates, issued in 2016, notes Veterans accounted for 18% of all deaths from suicide among U.S. adults. This compares with 22% in 2010.

Chen and his team have identified patterns of Veterans' needs and preferences for social connectedness.

"Veterans appear to be interested in a broad range of activities," he says. "However, they noted having difficulty knowing how to access these activities and how to make new social connections. Within our sample, Veterans have discussed needing more hands-on support for engaging in community activities. They generally value and believe these activities are important for their wellness and recovery. But they could use extra support for navigating logistics and interactions with new people. We plan for this support to come from a Veteran peer support specialist. That is a Veteran who has undergone his or her own mental health recovery and is now helping support other Veterans with their experiences."

Working with communities

Researchers are partnering with communities to provide a broad range of activities tailored to the interests of Veterans who are at high risk for suicide. These activities include engaging with Veterans or non-Veterans in the Chinese martial art tai chi or outdoor activities, such as fly fishing or playing music.

"We do not have good evidence that any one type of activity is more protective than another," Chen says. "They're worthwhile as long as folks develop a sense of belonging and feel like they're giving back to others."

This article originally appeared on VAntage Point. Follow @DeptVetAffairs on Twitter.