BETHESDA – A study conducted by the National Institute of Health (NIH) and U.S. Army shows military suicide rates are not only on the rise, but nearly half of soldiers who reported suicide attempts made their first attempt prior to enlistment.
NIH released three articles detailing the initial results of the study which examined the experiences of 975,057 Army soldiers from 2004-2009. According to the study, the Army suicide rate rose from 11.6 percent in 2004 to 21.2 percent in 2008 when it surpassed the civilian suicide rate. The rate rose again to 27.7 percent in 2009.
Lead author Michael Schoenbaum, senior advisor for mental health services, epidemiology, and economics at the National Institute of Mental Health, said the results are partially explained by the “war is hell” theory.
“The idea behind ‘war is hell’ is you send people to Iraq or Afghanistan, or wherever—into these combat zones –and they experience bad things. We do observe that,” Schoenbaum said. “We found that soldiers who have deployed do have higher suicide risk both during deployment and after deployment compared to soldiers who never deployed.”
However, Schoenbaum said the theory fails to explain why the suicide rate for soldiers who were never deployed nearly tripled—rising from 10.4 percent in 2004 to 27.4 percent in 2009. Schoenbaum said there are some ideas for why this occurred, but he could not know for sure.
“You can come up with theories about how fighting two wars might be stressful on the soldiers who have not gone to war yet,” Schoenbaum said. “Those people are left behind. Some of them are not deployed because they are not deployable. It may be stressful if all of your buddies go and you do not or cannot go. It may also be some of these people are stressed in anticipation of deployment.”
The study also found many soldiers exhibited suicidal behavior or had suicidal thoughts before they ever joined the Army.
According to findings from a survey of more than 5,000 non-deployed soldiers, 13.9 percent of soldiers considered suicide at some point in their lifetime, 5.3 percent made a suicide plan, and 2.4 percent attempted suicide, with between 47 to 60 percent of these outcomes first occurring prior to joining the Army. A quarter of solders met the criteria for having a mental disorder.
While the results may be surprising to the general public, Schoenbaum said, mental disorders are more common than people think.
“One in four soldiers having some kind of mental health issue is broadly similar to the general population,” he said.