Report finds suicide attempts most common in newer soldiers

Wiesbaden Soldiers use skits to portray challenging behavioral situations and ways to help fellow Soldiers cope during Suicide Prevention training in the Wiesbaden Fitness Center. (United States Army)

CHICAGO (AP) — War-time suicide attempts in the U.S. Army are most common in newer enlisted soldiers who have not been deployed, while officers are less likely to try to end their lives. At both levels, attempts are more common among women and those without a high school diploma, according to a study billed as the most comprehensive analysis of a problem that has plagued the U.S. military in recent years.

Suicides in the military have gotten the most attention, but attempts are more prevalent and sometimes have different contributing factors. They’re “an opportunity to intervene,” said Dr. Robert Ursano, psychiatry chairman at the Uniformed Services University and the study’s lead author.

The study analyzed records on nearly 10,000 suicide attempts among almost 1 million active-duty Army members during the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, from 2004 to 2009. That compares with 569 Army suicide deaths during the same period reported by researchers last year in a different phase of the same study. Rates for both increased during that time.

Headquarters, U.S. Army Materiel Command hosted a three-mile command run/power walk at Redstone Arsenal in support of the Army's Suicide Awareness campaign. Leading the run is AMC Commander, General Dennis L. Via with AMC CSM Ronald Riling calling cadence. The run is one of several events during AMC's month-long Campaign. AMC also held a Headquarters Town Hall meeting that afternoon and plans on other activities during the month of October to encourage use of Army programs such as "Shoulder-to-Shoulder" and "Strong Bonds." Photo by Cherish Washington, AMC Public Affairs.
Headquarters, U.S. Army Materiel Command hosted a three-mile command run/power walk at Redstone Arsenal in support of the Army’s Suicide Awareness campaign.  Photo by Cherish Washington, AMC Public Affairs.

The new research was published Wednesday in the journal JAMA Psychiatry. Some key points:

ATTEMPTS VS DEATHS

Suicide attempts and deaths were more common among enlisted soldiers than officers. The new research found an attempt rate of 377 per 100,000 among enlisted soldiers versus almost 28 per 100,000 among officers. Attempts and suicide deaths were more common among whites than blacks and Hispanics; among those with no college education; and those at early stages of their Army careers. Recent diagnosis of mental illness was another common characteristic.

DIFFERENCES

Compared with Army men, attempts were more common in women but deaths were less common. Attempts were more common but deaths were less common in soldiers who weren’t deployed versus the currently deployed.

“Suicide attempts and completed suicides have different predictors in most studies,” said Ursano. “They may in fact represent different ‘disorders'” related to suicide.

Army Soldiers and civilians participate in a suicide intervention role playing exercise during the revised Army ACE Suicide Intervention facilitator program at Fort Huachuca, Ariz., May 28. The Arizona Army National Guard sent 15 Guard members, the first to be trained in the state, to learn how to train other Soldiers to intervene with those at risk for suicide during the six-hour training. (National Guard photo by Army Sgt. Crystal Reidy)
Army Soldiers and civilians participate in a suicide intervention role playing exercise during the revised Army ACE Suicide Intervention facilitator program at Fort Huachuca, Ariz., May 28. (National Guard photo by Army Sgt. Crystal Reidy)

WHAT ABOUT CIVILIANS?

Comparing military suicide attempt rates with civilian rates is difficult because of differences in methods used, Ursano said. The study cites nonfatal self-injury rates for U.S. men aged 18 to 34 during the same time — about 214 per 100,000 and slightly higher rates for women, but these only involve injuries treated in hospital emergency rooms and may include self-injuries that weren’t suicide attempts.

In recent years, Army suicide rates have surpassed civilian rates although military estimates are generally lower than others.

PREVENTION EFFORTS

The new results will help the Army identify which prevention programs are most beneficial, Ursano said.

Suicide attempts can lead to a medical discharge but they are not grounds for automatic dismissal, according an Army spokeswoman.

Early-career soldiers may be particularly vulnerable because of trouble adjusting to military life and anxiety over potentially being deployed to combat, said psychologist Craig Bryan, associate director of the National Center for Veterans Studies at the University of Utah.

An atmosphere that encourages mental toughness may discourage some suicidal soldiers from seeking help, said Bryan, whose research found promising results with an intervention that uses military-sounding names for traditional behavior therapy methods. For example, dubbing the “hope box” method of focusing on positive thoughts a “survival kit,” and calling special relaxation techniques “tactical breathing” made them more appealing to soldiers.’

“It didn’t seem like silly stuff to them anymore,” he said.

Retired Sgt. 1st Class Michael Schlitz, a veteran who was severely injured by an improvised explosive device in Baghdad during the troop surge, talks to paratroopers of 1st Battalion, 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 1st Brigade, 82nd Airborne Division (Advise and Assist Brigade) at Al Asad Air Base, Iraq, about suicide prevention. Schlitz told his audience that it was their responsibility to take care of their battle buddies' emotional health. (Sgt. Mike MacLeod)
Retired Sgt. 1st Class Michael Schlitz, a veteran who was severely injured by an improvised explosive device in Baghdad during the troop surge, talks to paratroopers of 1st Battalion, 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 1st Brigade, 82nd Airborne Division (Advise and Assist Brigade) at Al Asad Air Base, Iraq, about suicide prevention. Schlitz told his audience that it was their responsibility to take care of their battle buddies’ emotional health. (Sgt. Mike MacLeod)

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