A major ongoing U.S. Army study has yielded valuable insights and challenged long-held assumptions about why the suicide rate among American soldiers began soaring in the 2000s.
Between 2004 and 2009—during some of the hardest fighting in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars—the suicide rate for U.S. soldiers more than doubled, surpassing the rate for their civilian counterparts in 2008. It has since fallen back to a level commensurate with the rate for civilians but, in response to that alarming uptick, in 2008 the Pentagon launched the Army “Study to Assess Risk and Resilience in Servicemember” to get to the bottom of the matter.
The survey, which began in 2008 and has sifted through the records of more than a million American soldiers, found that while the suicide rate did climb markedly for soldiers on deployment in Iraq and Afghanistan, it also climbed for those who never left the U.S. The findings suggest that overall cultural changes in the military during time of war—rather than just the stress of combat itself—contributes to the significant mental health challenges many in the military have faced in this last decade-plus of war.
In the three reports the study has yielded thus far, researchers report that many of those who suffer from mental health problems while in the military may bring the seeds of those problems into the services with them. Soldiers in the survey were twice as likely to suffer from a mental health disorder like anxiety or depression as civilian counterparts but only about half of those problems came about after enlistment, the New York Times reports.
Soldiers in the survey were more than five times more likely than civilians to experience impulsive anger—likely a key contributing cause of the high suicide rates among U.S. servicemembers; soldiers are less likely than civilians overall to make suicide attempts but more likely to succeed.
“The people at highest risk of making an attempt struggled with depression and anxiety, or post-traumatic stress, in combination with impulsiveness and aggression,” said the lead author on one paper. “The former gets people thinking about suicide, and the latter gets them to act on those thoughts.”