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Largest Study Of Its Kind Finds No Link Between Combat And Military Suicides

Evening Edition

Aired 8/7/13 on KPBS Midday Edition.

Guests

Cynthia LeardMann, Senior Epidemiologist, Naval Health Research Center, San Diego

Nancy Crum, Principal Investigator, Naval Health Research Center

Neal Doran, Clinical Psychologist, VA San Diego

Transcript

Aired 8/7/13 on KPBS News.

Last year, United States military personnel were more likely to die by suicide than by fighting in Afghanistan, but a new study finds that the stress of combat is not what's driving the current rise in military suicides.

Last year, United States military personnel were more likely to die by suicide than by fighting in Afghanistan, but a study published today finds that the stress of combat is not what's driving the current rise in military suicides.

Researchers led by Cynthia LeardMann of the Naval Health Research Center in San Diego found that suicide patterns among service members are basically the same as suicide patterns found in the general public. Alcohol abuse, depression and simply being a man were some of the most common factors involved in military suicides, mirroring what public health monitors see in civilian suicides.

That's not to say the suicide rate amongst current and former military personnel hasn't risen in recent years. In early 2013, the Department of Veterans' Affairs found that about 22 veterans kill themselves every day, a figure that's up 20 percent from 2007. Last year also saw a record high in suicides among active duty service members, with roughly one committing suicide each day.

So it might be surprising to hear that factors like whether or not a soldier went into combat, how long they were deployed, and how many tours of duty they completed don't seem to make a difference when it comes to suicide.

"Deployment is not associated with suicide risk," says LeardMann. "Really, what is leading to this increased risk is these mental health disorders."

LeardMann says that in theory military factors could play in indirect role in certain suicides. Perhaps alcohol and mental health problems stemmed from military experiences in some cases.

"It's possible that the operational stress of a decade at war could in general be increasing mental health disorders among this population," she says.

But once you start speculating about indirect causes, you have to consider other explanations too. For example, "It also could be because of decreased standards in recruits," LeardMann says. "There could be more mental health disorders among those enlisting."

LeardMann's research drew on data from the Millennium Cohort Study, which has been periodically checking in with over 150,000 current and former U.S. service members about their health since 2001. It's the largest survey of its kind in U.S. military history.

Eighty-three of the subjects LeardMann and her colleagues studied had committed suicide. When they compared those who did commit suicide with those who didn't, the researchers didn't find any major differences in combat history.

Historically, suicide rates in the military have been lower than suicide rates at large. LeardMann says military suicides have been attracting scrutiny lately because they're starting to become common enough to match the general population.

"It's still quite a rare event in these military and veteran populations," she notes.

The data LeardMann used for this study cuts off at 2008. Military suicides have only gone up since then, so she hopes to follow up and see if anything has changed in recent years.

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