Ever since the beginning of the "War on Terror" and its associated actual wars, suicides among members of the U.S. military have been rising. Suicide is now the leading cause of death for soldiers; among veterans, it's just as bad. But a new study says that military deployments are not the cause.
We want to present the findings of the new study as carefully as possible, so there is as little misinterpretation here as possible. Here is the link to the actual study and its findings. It examined data on military suicides from 2001-2008, meaning that it includes data from the period of the big suicide increase, although not data current to this year. Its primary finding: military suicides are indicated by the same factors that are normally correlated with suicides in the broader population, and they are not correlated with military-exclusive factors like length of deployment.
In Cox models adjusted for age and sex, factors significantly associated with increased risk of suicide included male sex, depression, manic-depressive disorder, heavy or binge drinking, and alcohol-related problems. None of the deployment-related factors (combat experience, cumulative days deployed, or number of deployments) were associated with increased suicide risk in any of the models.
This New York Times story contains some good discussions of qualifiers of these findings— for one, it's unclear how much a military setting might exacerbate previously existing problems like drug use or depression, either during or after deployment. Likewise, the stresses of long deployments on family structures could lead to worse situations when soldiers at risk of suicide come home. So it's all still a bit cloudy, and the findings should not be taken as a definitive statement that year after year after year of active war has no connection to increased suicide risk for soldiers.
While they're still figuring it all out, let's start with better mental health care for veterans, and go from there.
[The study. Photo: AP]