In the years since the War on Terror began, suicide has become an ever-present shadow, looming over America’s veteran community. While the oft-referenced 22 veteran suicides per day isn’t quite accurate, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs, the corrected figured barely indicates any improvement. In truth, an average of just about 20 veterans choose to end their own lives each day, and no amount of suicide prevention training can seem to make a dent in that figure.
A number of studies, both funded by the Pentagon and elsewhere, have attempted to bring sense to this tragic development, and a great deal has indeed been learned. Deployments and the horrors of combat don’t seem to be the root cause of the problem, as non-combat veteran suicide rates continue to pace those of veterans that saw action. Instead, it seems a number of factors come into play – so many, in fact, that it has proven extremely difficult to establish a profile of the type of veteran that may be susceptible to suicidal ideations. If you ever wore a pair of general issue boots, you would seem to be at risk.
Active duty suicides, like those of their veteran counterparts, not only continue to befuddle researchers, but pose a serious threat to overall mission readiness. A whopping 20% of all suicide deaths in the United States come from military personnel and veterans, a comparably much smaller demographic of the total population. The only bright side to this epidemic, is that there is a breadth of data to pull from.
A new Department of Defense study may have identified at least one risk factor that could increase the chances a Soldier, Sailor, or Marine may choose to end their own life. By studying 9,512 suicide attempts by enlisted U.S. Army soldiers between 2004 and 2009, a trend began to emerge.
Dr. Robert Ursano, a professor of psychiatry and neuroscience, and the director of the Center for the Study of Traumatic Stress at the Department of Defense’s Uniformed Services University, has found that the risk of suicide attempts in a U.S. Army unit increases as the number of suicide attempts made within the unit over the past year rises. Put plainly, the more people attempt to commit suicide in a unit over the past year, the more likely more will make an attempt in the near future.
Historically, you were protected from suicide when you went in the Army. Rates of suicide were about half of those in the civilian population, and around 2009, they increased to above that of the civilian population and they remained high since then,” said Ursano, who was lead author of the study.
Through analysis of the data provided by the Army’s Study to Assess Risk and Resilience in Service members research project, or STARRS, Ursano found that a soldier assigned to a unit with one or more suicide attempts during the previous year demonstrated a statistically higher likelihood that he or she would make an attempt themselves. As the number of suicides over the past year increases, so too does the likelihood that new soldiers to the unit will make an attempt on their own life.
Unlike veteran suicides, combat arms occupations seem to be the hardest hit in terms of how other suicides impact a soldier’s likelihood to make an attempt on his or her own life. An infantryman assigned to a unit with five suicide attempts in the last year is nearly twice as likely to make a suicide attempt than a soldier assigned to a unit with none. In any occupational specialty, being assigned to a unit that has had a suicide attempt within 12 months increases a soldier’s chances of falling victim to the same senseless act by as much as 18.2 percent; “indicating that, if the risk associated with units that had at least one past-year significant attempt could be reduced to those with no attempts, 18.2% of attempts would not occur,” the researchers wrote in the study.
It actually aligns with some research that’s been published in the past few years using smaller samples that aren’t necessarily representative of the Army, but have similarly found that exposure to suicide is associated with increased risk of suicidal thoughts and behaviors in other service members,” said Craig Bryan, a psychology professor and executive director of the National Center for Veterans Studies at the University of Utah.
While this finding may speak to command climate and the unique challenges faces by different military occupations, the most valuable result of the new study may be the implementation of what some refer to as “postvention” training. While suicide prevention training has already become commonplace throughout the military, postvention would aim to help those left behind in a unit after a soldier ends his or her own life.
To be honest, postvention has not received nearly as much attention and as much focus as more traditional treatments and prevention methods,” Bryan said. “I think that’s probably going to be the most important implication of this study, pushing forward that we should be doing a lot more and paying way more attention to how we effectively respond to suicide loss as well as suicide attempts within confined social groups.”
By implementing “postvention” training, a unit could potentially curb the likelihood that other soldiers will follow suit after a suicide attempt, by working to identify command factors that could have led to the attempt and helping any attempt survivors to feel as though they belong and continue to have purpose within their unit, the command could also help others who may silently be coping with the same sense of worthlessness.
Perhaps most importantly, “postvention” training could help soldiers learn to recognize the warning signs in themselves and others in the days following a traumatic incident, increasing the likelihood that one might seek, or be reached through, intervention of some sort.
As a personal note, three Marines I’ve served with, including two from the same unit, have chosen to end their own lives since our days serving together in uniform, and I’m aware of at least two more that worked closely with us. Like many service members, I have lost more friends to suicide than to combat, accidents, or illness. No one is too strong, too confident, or too positive to be susceptible, and even when you’ve gotten the call more than once… it always seems to come as a shock.
If you or someone you know is struggling with suicidal ideations, call the National Suicide Prevention hotline at 1 (800) 273-8255 or text someone at the Crises Text Line at 741741.
For veteran specific services, call the Veterans Crisis Line at 800-273-8255, then press 1 to talk to someone immediately. You can also text them at 838255, or access private and confidential online chat here.
Don’t suffer alone. Reach out for help.
Image courtesy of the Department of Defense