When it comes to military suicides, we tend to blame the deaths on combat trauma. But that relationship may be a myth after all. A new study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association is challenging everything we think we knew about military suicides and their causes.
The scientists based their paper on the Pentagon’s own analysis of soldiers’ wellness. In 2001, the Pentagon launched the Millennium Cohort Study, a survey of mental health in the military, among other things. The researchers published in the AMA’s journal took the first seven years of that data — from 2001 to 2007 — and analyzed the lives of the 151,560 soldiers enrolled in the program by then. In 2008, 83 of those soldiers had already committed suicide. But scientists could not draw a direct link between combat and those deaths. The length and number of deployments did not explain the suicides either.
Yet they did discover a few striking patterns:
- Men were twice as likely to commit suicide as women.
- Depression doubles the risk of suicide.
- Alcohol abuse more than doubles the risk.
- Service members who never went to war, service members who went but did not experience combat, and service members who witnessed death on the battlefield were equally likely to commit suicide.
Despite these discoveries, the researchers never hit a solid answer for why suicides have increased since the War in Iraq began. Traditionally, service members have taken their lives a much lower rate than the civilian population. Today the playing field is evening out. Just last year, 524 active-duty service members, reservists, and National Guard members killed themselves. The highest spike in suicides came for Army and Marine personnel between 2005 and 2009.
There are several theories for why this is happening. Some suggest that wartime stresses — regardless of where one is posted — are causing the increase. Others believe people who volunteer to serve “may be more likely to have preexisting mental illness.” Feelings of unfulfillment could explain the suicides of non-combat members. A report from the LA Times revealed that non-combat soldiers committed 52% of all military suicides between 2008 and 2011, and that these recruits had been “struggling with the direction of their lives and joined the military in search of purpose.”
Still, no one is writing off combat exposure that easily. The Millennium Cohort Study is only in its 13th year, but it's set to go on for another 55, until 2068. Seventy years of research will give us a clearer view of how the War on Terror has affected our service members.
Until then we’ll rely on what we do know. In the words of Dr. Timothy Lineberry, a suicide expert in Rochester, Minnesota, "The things we see associated with suicide outside the military are the same things we see associated with suicide in the military."