Gender differences in the development of suicidal behavior among United States military veterans: A national qualitative study

Soc Sci Med. 2020 Sep;260:113178. doi: 10.1016/j.socscimed.2020.113178. Epub 2020 Jul 9.


Rationale: The rate of suicide mortality among women is increasing in the United States (U.S.), especially among military veterans. Prior research suggests that important gender differences in suicide risk exist, but not enough is known to tailor prevention approaches by gender.

Objective: The goal of this study is to understand gender differences in the development of suicidal behaviors (suicide risk) among U.S. veterans to inform future research and gender-tailored prevention efforts.

Methods: Using a modified grounded theory approach, this qualitative study interviewed 50 (25 men, 25 women) U.S. veterans who had made a recent (prior 6 months) suicide attempt. Veterans were recruited from Veterans Health Administration (VHA) healthcare facilities across the U.S. Semi-structured, hour-long interviews examined participants' experiences with military service, suicidal thoughts and attempts, and healthcare following their attempt.

Results: The analysis revealed two gendered narratives of suicidal thoughts and attempts that incorporated the primary themes of self-concept, social power, relationships, coping, and stress. When discussing reasons for their suicide attempts, women discussed negative self-evaluative processes describing themselves as, "shameful," "tainted," and "worthless," whereas men discussed becoming overwhelmed, and recalled thinking, "it just wasn't worth it," "I've had enough," and, "screw this."

Conclusions: This study provides an in-depth, nuanced understanding of the gender differences in suicide risk among veterans and suggests several ways in which future work may address gender-tailored suicide prevention efforts. Specifically, women veterans may benefit from methods to increase self-worth through positive social relationships, while men veterans may benefit from methods that increase their sense of purpose in life and help them achieve their ideal selves through successful experiences.

Keywords: Gender; Military veterans; Psychosocial risk; Qualitative methods; Suicide prevention.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.