Understanding military suicides: Study offers guidelines for intervention

To better prevent suicide attempts among US military personnel, researchers have identified indicators of the most at-risk soldiers. 

Ahn Young-joon/AP
US Army soldiers salute during the Memorial Day Honor Guard Ceremony at Knight Field, a US military base, in Seoul, South Korea, Thursday.

A new study on suicide attempts by US soldiers offers insight into how to best direct prevention resources.

For example, for soldiers who were never deployed (ND), the very beginning of their service seems to be the most difficult time for them.

"The higher risk among ND soldiers in their second month of service, a stressful time during basic training and Army acculturation reinforces the importance of developing and evaluating effective risk detection and intervention strategies early in a soldier’s career," explain the authors of a report published Wednesday in JAMA Psychiatry, a publication of The Journal of the American Medical Association.

Of the 163,178 soldiers surveyed for this study, 40 percent of them were classified as having never deployed, but this group alone accounted for over 60 percent of all suicide attempts.

The report not only directs prevention efforts toward the military population in general, but also certain demographics within this population. By knowing when to increase monitoring efforts, and for whom, researchers, loved ones, and healthcare providers can better prevent suicide attempts among military personnel.

"A life/career perspective can assist in identifying high-risk segments of a population based on factors such as timing, environmental context, and individual characteristics," researches wrote. "Our findings, while most relevant to active-duty US Army soldiers, highlight considerations that may inform the study of suicide risk in other contexts such as during the transition from military to civilian life."

Among previously deployed soldiers, risk seems to have be highest during the first five months after deployment so “programs to help soldiers in the months following redeployment may be particularly important,” the authors point out.

However among all deployment contexts – from never deployed soldiers to decorated veterans – it is women who were the most likely to attempt suicide.

"Further research is required to understand factors that may contribute to these sex differences," say the authors, but some potential gender-specific causes may include occupational differences during deployment, unequal social support, or sexual assault and harassment.

The nuanced detail of this data can help address a key criticism of existing suicide prevention efforts highlighted by the Office of Inspector General in September report.

"The Defense Suicide Prevention Office lacked clear processes for planning, directing, guiding, and resourcing to effectively develop and integrate the Suicide Prevention Program within the DoD," writes the Office of Inspector General. "We recommend the Defense Suicide Prevention Office provide an implementation strategy to adapt Department of Defense applicable evidence-based suicide prevention research findings into standard practices across the Department." 

The Office of Inspector General did applaud noteworthy progress made since the Defense Suicide Prevention Office was established in 2011.

Through a partnership with the Veterans Affairs, DoD created the Suicide Data Repository as the sole database for “all suicide-related events for service members and veterans.” And as Wednesday’s study suggests, an accurate account of soldiers’ past mental struggles may be a productive way to decrease future suicide attempts.

This report contains material from Reuters.

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