Fifteen years ago, exhausted and driving home from a day at the hospital with my husband, I remember staring at the guardrail on the highway. Bob's long-term recovery from his brain injury had no percentages or guaranteed outcomes. The future was scary and uncertain. “If I just drifted to the right,” I thought, “all of this fear, anxiety and sorrow would be over.”
Although I knew that I'd never act on my thoughts, just imagining an escape hatch somehow made me feel better. My love for my family was just one good reason to stay in this world, but I remember feeling absolutely overwhelmed and alone. I wanted someone else's life — anyone else's life. And I knew that I must not be the only one who felt this way.
Decades of caregiving ahead
A new study by researchers at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio confirms the prevalence and nature of suicidal ideation among military caregivers. More than two decades of war and the high percentage of injuries and illnesses have created a younger population of caregivers (compared to civilian caregivers) focused on veterans with long-term medical conditions.
Roxana Delgado, a UT health center assistant professor with a doctorate of health sciences who designed and led the study, has a combat-wounded husband, retired U.S. Army Sgt. 1st Class Victor L. Medina, who was injured by an explosive-formed projectile and sustained a moderate traumatic brain injury, as well as other physical injuries.
As part of the military community, she knew there was no information available on family caregivers and suicidal thoughts. She teamed up with Kimberly Peacock, a Gold Star wife, instructor and senior research scientist at the UT health center with a doctorate of education who had also been on the other side of the issue, to create and implement an online study among nearly 500 military caregivers.
Almost 24 percent of those surveyed reported thinking about suicide since becoming a caregiver. Caregivers of people with mental health issues like traumatic brain injury, anxiety disorders, Alzheimer's and PTSD are at a higher risk for suicidal tendencies than those caring for people with physical injuries like burns or amputations.
"Loss of self and the interruption of education due to caregiving responsibilities were compelling predictors for being vulnerable to suicidal thoughts,” Peacock says. “These caregivers know they are in this for decades, which often creates a greater sense of hopelessness, pain, depression and stress.”
Not only are war injuries abrupt, but they are often multifaceted, meaning military caregivers tend to an average of five or more different conditions that can require highly specialized skills. Both researchers were surprised at the high numbers for suicidal ideation, since military caregivers tend to be better organized and have more resources than civilians.
"This is a group that is organized around resources and has a sense of community. But it doesn't mean everyone takes advantage of what's available,” Delgado says. “The fact that one-quarter of respondents think about just ending it all shows that we need to focus on this issue and do more."