Women attempt suicide more often than men, but men are more likely to die by suicide than women. While this adage is still true, the U.S. has seen an increase in suicide over the past couple of decades – particularly among women. The age-adjusted suicide rate among women rose 53 percent between 1999 and 2017 compared to a 26 percent increase among men during the same period. This narrowing gender gap is shifting the face of suicide, requiring clinicians and researchers to better understand what is driving the growing suicide rate among women and how best to address prevention among women at risk.
Women who are current or former U.S. military members (servicewomen and women veterans) are carrying a disproportionate burden of the growing suicide rate among adult women, dying by suicide at higher rates than their non-veteran counterparts. Although suicide rates among veterans are higher than among non-veterans across the board, men veterans are 1.3 times more likely to die by suicide than non-veteran men while women veterans are 2.2 times more likely to die by suicide than non-veteran women. As such, women veterans represent a growing subpopulation that is in need of suicide prevention efforts tailored for their unique needs and experiences.
Suicide prevention efforts have been mostly gender-neutral
Despite the large volume of research in suicide prevention, most health services research has widely ignored gender differences in suicide risk, resilience, and prevention. The small group of available studies that have examined gender differences, or that have conducted gender stratified analyses, has been limited by small sample sizes, studies of subpopulations, and other methodological issues that limit its generalizability.
However, this work does suggest that some important gender differences may exist, and there is a growing recognition that it is necessary to understand the roles of sex and gender in health – including mental health. The available research suggests that deficits in interpersonal resources may be stronger risk factors for suicide among women than among men, and that women may rely more often on interpersonal resources for coping with distress. This is consistent with research on gender differences in depression, which also shows that women are likely to experience unique stressors and respond differently to stress compared to men due to biological differences and gender role socialization. Further research is needed to establish these and other as-not-yet identified gender differences in suicide risk, resilience, and prevention.
Reducing gender disparities in suicide prevention research
The Department of Veterans Affairs’ (VA) Women’s Health Research Network (WHRN) was established in 2010 to facilitate high-quality and high-priority health services research in women veterans’ health through several capacity-building initiatives. WHRN represents one of several efforts supported by VA Health Services Research & Development Service (HSR&D) to reduce gender disparities in healthcare and research, towards increasing evidence-based, gender tailored care. WHRN consortium leadership and investigators whose work examines suicide prevention among women veterans sought and obtained funding from VA HSR&D to support a special supplement for suicide among women in Medical Care to further encourage the publication of high-impact findings in this area. It is our hope that this special supplement will both accelerate the knowledge base on gender and suicide as well as increase national awareness of the increasing suicide rates among women – perhaps furthering the resources available to tackle this growing concern.