The suicide rate for veterans and active-duty members of the military is lower than for civilians, but when compared to civilians of similar demographics (e.g., primarily young white males), it is higher for service personnel.
The causes of the increase in self-inflicted military fatalities is not clear. There is evidence that combat deployments are not one of them. A study published in The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), “Risk Factors Associated with Suicide in Current and Former U.S. Military Personnel,” found that suicide risk is not associated with “military-specific variables.”
Instead, the study concluded, current and former members of the military commit suicide for the same reasons civilians do: “mental illness, substance abuse, and financial and relationship problems,” according to The New York Times.
On the other hand, there are also signs that the trauma of battle may be an important cause for the rising numbers: a 2009 report from the Army’s surgeon general showed that suicide among troops who served in Iraq between 2004 and 2007 rose from 13.5 to 24.8 per 100,000. The rate of suicide among active duty personnel is higher than that of civilians.
The principal investigator who collected the raw data the JAMA study relied on qualified the inferences to be drawn from her research about the impetus behind military suicides: “perhaps it’s not being deployed so much as being in a war during a high-stress time period,” she said. Critics of the JAMA study point out that it is based on data ending in 2008. Since then, multiple deployments and brain injuries from roadside bombs have both grown, and therefore the study might underestimate their role in suicides. The study’s authors plan to update their findings with data from 2008 to 2012.
The primary causes of suicide both in the military and among civilians are mental disorders like depression, substance abuse and poverty. Poverty among veterans is declining as their employment rates rise, perhaps thanks to an Obama initiative to connect unemployed vets with jobs. In fact, at 6.3 percent, their unemployment rate is now lower than that of the general population, which is 7.4 percent.
The military is evaluating its suicide prevention programs. These include efforts to reduce the stigma that service personnel associate with mental illness and increase awareness of the warning signs and causes of suicide. But publicly available information on the military’s programs is vague.
The jury is out on whether active combat duty increases the risk of suicide. For the time being, we should keep it in mind in debates about bringing troops home from war zones and putting them on the ground in new battles.
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