Despite expectations, research shows obesity decreases suicide risk
Published: June 21, 2012
WASHINGTON — Research shows that depression can increase an individual’s risk of committing suicide. And researchers know that obesity can increase an individual’s likelihood of developing depression. But a new study shows veterans who are obese are significantly less likely to kill themselves than those at ideal weight or underweight.
Confused? So are mental health experts looking for answers on why some combat veterans can return home without any problems, while others contemplate ending their lives.
Dr. John McCarthy, associate director of the Department of Veterans Affairs Serious Mental Illness Treatment Resource and Evaluation Center, analyzed more than 4 million veterans health records to map the connection between body mass index and suicide risk.
Vets whose BMI fell in the obese or overweight categories were 22 percent less likely to kill themselves than those with a normal BMI. Underweight veterans were 17 percent more likely to commit suicide.
McCarthy presented the findings at this week’s interagency suicide prevention conference, but he admitted he isn’t sure what the results mean.
“I wouldn’t recommend veterans putting on weight, because of the obvious health risks,” he said. “But it’s an interesting way of getting a window on a problem that we don’t know very well.”
Other mental health experts at the conference echoed that confusion and frustration. Despite progress in treating suicidal urges, researchers still don’t have a strong grasp on what causes suicidal behavior, only a collection of indicators like McCarty’s research.
Depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental health problems often are warning signs of suicide risk, as are chronic pain and substance abuse. But mapping personal resiliency isn’t as easy.
McCarthy said more important than his findings might be his methods. The BMI study was put together in a matter of months, based off existing studies and the VA’s massive database of health records.
He hopes future efforts to data-mine those resources might uncover other connections, and lead to a better understanding of the suicide problem.