Geography, rurality, and community distress: deaths due to suicide, alcohol-use, and drug-use among Colorado Veterans

Talia L. Spark, Colleen E. Reid, Rachel Sayko Adams, Alexandra L. Schneider, Jeri Forster, Lauren M. Denneson, Mary Bollinger, Lisa A. Brenner

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Background: In the USA, deaths due to suicide, alcohol, or drug-related causes (e.g., alcohol-related liver disease, overdose) have doubled since 2002. Veterans appear disproportionately impacted by growing trends. Limited research has been conducted regarding the relationship between community-level factors (e.g., rurality, community distress resulting from economic conditions) and the presence of spatial clustering of suicide, alcohol-related, or drug-related deaths. We explored community-level relationships in Colorado Veterans and compared suicide, alcohol-, and drug-related death rates between the Colorado adult population and Veterans. Methods: 2009–2020 suicide, alcohol-related, and/or drug-related deaths were identified using qualifying multiple cause-of-death International Classification of Disease (ICD)-10 codes in CDC WONDER for the general adult population and Colorado death data for Veteran populations. Age and race adjusted rates were calculated to compare risk overall and by mortality type (i.e., suicide, alcohol-related, drug-related). In Veteran decedents, age-adjusted rates were stratified by rurality and community distress, measured by the Distressed Communities Index. Standardized mortality ratios were calculated to measure spatial autocorrelation and identify clusters using global and local Moran’s I, respectively. Results: 6.4% of Colorado Veteran deaths (n = 6948) were identified as being related to suicide, alcohol, or drugs. Compared to rates in the general population of Colorado adults, Veterans had 1.8 times higher rates of such deaths overall (2.1 times higher for suicide, 1.8 times higher for alcohol-related, 1.3 times higher for drug-related). Among Veterans, community distress was associated with an increased risk of alcohol-related [age-adjusted rate per 100,000 (95% CI) = 129.6 (89.9–193.1)] and drug-related deaths [95.0 (48.6–172.0)]. This same significant association was not identified among those that died by suicide. Rurality was not associated with risk for any of the deaths of interest. There was significant spatial clustering for alcohol-related deaths in southeast Colorado. Conclusions: Colorado Veterans have higher rates of deaths due to suicide, alcohol-related, and drug-related causes compared to members of the general adult population. Upstream prevention efforts, such as community-based interventions targeting alcohol-use and community economic distress, are warranted. More research is also needed to understand how community distress and other social determinants of health impact the community burden of suicide, alcohol-related, and drug-related mortality.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number8
JournalInjury Epidemiology
Issue number1
StatePublished - Dec 2023


  • Alcohol-related liver disease
  • Community distress
  • Geography
  • Overdose
  • Rurality
  • Substance use disorder
  • Suicide
  • Veterans

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Medicine


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