Study Finds No Link Between Military Suicide Rate and Deployments
The findings are the latest in a series of studies prompted by a military suicide rate that has nearly doubled since 2005. The study’s authors and others cautioned, however, that the findings do not rule out combat exposure as a reason for the increase in suicides, adding that more information was needed.
“As the wars went on, the suicide rates also went up and it was very tempting to assume deployments must be the reason,”
said the lead author, Mark Reger of the Department of Defense National Center forTelehealth and Technology in Tacoma, Wash. “Our data don’t support that. But there may be important subgroups, including those exposed to combat, that we need to look at further.”
The suicide rate for troops deployed in support of the fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, the study found, was only slightly higher than for troops who did not deploy to that area or remained stateside — 18.86 deaths versus 17.78 deaths per 100,000. The national average is about 13 deaths per 100,000.
Earlier studies produced contrasting results, with one finding an increased risk after deployment among young Army soldiers, others finding no increase and one finding deployment actually lowered suicide risk.
The latest study, which analyzed records of 3.9 million military personnel who served from 2001 to 2007, did find that troops who left the military within four years, especially under less-than-honorable conditions, were at much higher risk of suicide than those who continued to serve.
The prevalence of suicide was not even across branches. The Army and Marine Corps, which bore the brunt of the fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, had rates about 25 percent higher than those of the Air Force and Navy. But within those branches, rates between those who deployed and those who did not were nearly the same.
“This is a very good study, but there may be a lot going on here that the data doesn’t allow us to see,” said Michael Schoenbaum, a researcher at the National Institute of Mental Health who led a 2014 study on suicides in the Army. He said the question of war’s effect on suicide was far from settled.
“You can be deployed without being in combat,” Mr. Schoenbaum said. “This data set wasn’t able to sort people by their exposure to the physical acts of war. That is the next step.”
So far, he said, no researchers have combined military injury data and other indicators of combat with suicide data to try to gauge suicides among combat veterans.
“We are slowly connecting the dots. This is an important one, but we have much more work to do,” he said.
The study also tracked suicides of military personnel after they left the military, by linking records kept by the Pentagon and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“No one had really been able to do that before,” Rajeev Ramchand, a behavioral health scientist at the RAND Corporation, said in an interview Tuesday. “We’ve been waiting for studies like this to show proof that what was a military problem is becoming a veteran problem.”
The study found that the suicide rate for troops who left the military before completing a four-year enlistment was nearly twice that of troops who stayed. The rate for troops who were involuntarily discharged under less-than-honorable conditions for disciplinary infractions was nearly three times higher. Troops given these so-called bad paper discharges are often not eligible for Department of Veterans Affairs medical care and other benefits.
“This has important policy implications,” Mr. Ramchand said. “We have a relatively small group, but the study shows it is a group that is at very high risk. And what are we doing to help them? Not much.”
The study’s authors said they planned to build on their research, linking military health records in an attempt to see how suicide is related to battlefield injuries and mental health issues related to combat, such aspost-traumatic stress disorder.