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What They Saw Over There

A new study suggests witnessing death, not just deployment or combat, raises soldiers' risk of suicide.
(Photo: StockPhotosLV/Shutterstock)

(Photo: StockPhotosLV/Shutterstock)

The jury is still out on whether overseas deployment leads to more suicides in the armed forces. Witnessing death or atrocity, however, seems to be a different story: Soldiers who see that kind of violence are roughly twice as likely to take their own lives, according to a new study.

Military suicides are a controversial subject—never mind the politics. It used to be that suicides in the armed forces were a bit below civilian levels, at 13 per 100,000 every year. But, after climbing for about a decade, in 2012, military suicide rates hit a high of 23 per 100,000 military personnel each year. Judging by the timing, the cause appears obvious: Our servicemen and women invaded two countries in the early 2000s, and the stress of repeated deployment and tricky urban combat must have led to the suicides—right?

Well, no. Some studies suggest deployment itself isn't enough to trigger soldiers stationed in war zones to kill themselves. Other have reached more mixed conclusions, though. That's at least in part because these studies all had slightly different aims. Some focused on deployment, while others looked at combat experience. Different research teams were also interested in different aspects of suicide itself, including suicidal thoughts, suicide attempts, and deaths. In other words, no one was asking quite the same questions, and maybe nobody was asking the right question.

Soldiers who'd seen people killed in war were at 43 percent higher risk for contemplating, attempting, or committing suicide, regardless of who'd done the killing.

Motivated by the death of colleague Peter Linnerooth, who took his life early in 2013 after serving five years as an Army psychologist, professor Craig Bryan at the University of Utah and six other researchers re-visited the evidence with the hope of figuring out what was going on. For their research, they gathered 22 studies on the effects that deployment and specific combat experiences—such as witnessing someone die—have on suicide.

Bryan and his fellow psychologists found that deployment itself, and deployment to a combat zone—Iraq, as opposed to Qatar—had at most a small impact on suicide rates. In fact, even being in combat had essentially no effect on whether soldiers took their lives.

But there was one thing that influenced whether combatants would later think about or attempt suicide: witnessing death. Killing another person in combat, being unable to prevent someone else's death, and witnessing atrocities or massacres increased the likelihood of thinking about, as well as attempting, suicide, Bryan and his colleagues found. Overall, soldiers who'd seen people killed in war were at 43 percent higher risk for contemplating, attempting, or committing suicide, regardless of who'd done the killing.

Though the researchers are quick to caution that combat isn't necessarily a trigger for suicide, the narrow range of combat experiences that influence suicide risk should give psychologists pause. "Continued use of deployment history and overgeneralized measures of suicide-related outcomes are likely to contribute to mixed findings and confusion," the team writes. Instead, probing the details of a soldier's combat experience will benefit researchers, clinical psychologists, and soldiers alike, they write.

Quick Studies is an award-winning series that sheds light on new research and discoveries that change the way we look at the world.