Suicide is a growing concern, especially in the nation's armed forces. Not a whole lot is known, however, about exactly what causes a soldier to take his or her own life. Now, military psychologists say they've discovered something a bit counterintuitive: Suicide doesn't have much to do with being sent to war.
The popular narrative about military suicide is that it's a consequence of war itself, with traumatic brain injury getting much of the blame, along with the psychological trauma that's long been an aspect of war. Add in the notoriously poorly managed Veterans Administration, and the increase in suicides from civilian levels to a staggering 22.7 suicides per 100,000 soldiers in 2012 starts to make sense.
Except that actually being in a war zone doesn't seem to do much to suicide rates.
Being deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq had at best a small effect on suicide rates. Among those deployed, records indicated there were 1,162 suicides, or about 19 per 100,000 people per year.
That's what a team led by National Center for Telehealth and Technology Deputy Director Mark Reger concluded after an expansive study of 3.9 million current and former service members from the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines. Located in Joint Base Lewis-McChord, south of Seattle, the researchers examined service records for nearly everyone in the four military branches between 2001 and 2007, comparing those records to suicide data on the same service members from 2001 to 2009.
Counterintuitively, being deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq had at best a small effect on suicide rates. Among those deployed, records indicated there were 1,162 suicides, or about 19 per 100,000 people per year. Personnel not deployed took their lives at only a slightly lower rate, roughly 18 per 100,000 per year.
On the other hand, a person's length of military service—and the circumstances of their exit from the military—had a more substantial effect on suicide rates. Those who'd left after 20 years or more took their own lives at a rate of about 11 per 100,000 per year—a little less than the rate for civilians—compared with 48 per 100,000 per year among those who'd left after just one year. That could be a result of the difficulty of transitioning into and out of military life, or perhaps of finding a new job once discharged. Service members with an honorable discharge committed suicide at a rate of about 22 people per 100,000 per year, about half the rate for those who got a dishonorable discharge.
"Although there has been speculation that deployment to the OEF/OIF combat theaters may be associated with military suicides, the results of this research do not support that hypothesis," Reger and his team write in the journal JAMA Psychiatry. Still, "future research is needed to examine combat injuries, mental health and other factors that may increase suicide risk. It is possible that such factors alone and in combination with deployment increase suicide risk," the team writes.
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