Military Suicide Attempts: It's Not Combat Stress


Most US Army soldiers who attempted suicide from 2004 to 2009 did so prior to deployment to a combat zone, a study finds. They were not combat-scarred but may have found basic training and Army culture overwhelming.

Military service members who attempt suicide are often portrayed as being psychologically scarred by combat stress.

According to a new study in JAMA Psychiatry that is not generally the case. Most suicide attempts in the US Army are by soldiers who have never deployed to a combat site, researchers report.

Lead author, Robert Ursano, MD, of the department of psychiatry and Center for the Study of Traumatic Stress at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences, Bethesda, MD and colleagues there and at other institutions noted that suicide attempts and suicide deaths in the US Army have risen in the past decade.

“Whether this risk pattern was associated with expanded Army recruitment during the [Gulf] war or anticipated deployments or is a persistent pattern of risk among soldiers in training remains to be determined,” Ursano wrote.

The team did a longitudinal retrospective cohort study of Regular Army soldiers on active duty from 2004 through 2009.

They found 9,650 suicide attempts.

“We found the highest rates of suicide attempts were among never-deployed soldiers and those in their first years of service,” they wrote.

But women who were deployed had a higher risk of suicide attempt than men who were deployed.

Among the soldiers who had not been sent to a combat zone, there was a higher risk in the second month of training.

The authors said that period is “a stressful time during basic training and Army acculturation” and that the documentation of that risk shows that caregivers need to do a better job evaluating soldiers’ mental health and coming up with intervention strategies.

Soldiers who had previously been deployed faced a higher risk of suicide attempt five months after they returned.

“Programs to help soldiers in the months following redeployment may be particularly important,” they noted.

“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,” the authors concluded.

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