Study identifies which soldiers are most likely to attempt suicide

Silhouette of US soldier with rifle against a sunset


Suicide rates among American soldiers skyrocketed in the years coinciding with the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. While a major public health concern, research has remained limited on Army suicides, but a new, large study sheds light on who is most at risk and when.

Researchers from the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences used data from the Army Study to Assess Risk and Resilience in Service members (Army STARRS) to analyze nearly 10,000 cases of Army personnel who attempted suicide from 2004 to 2009.

The study, published Wednesday in JAMA Psychiatry, found that while enlisted soldiers make up approximately 84 percent of the Army, they accounted for almost 99 percent of suicide attempts - a total of 9,650 cases. Officers, who make up 16.5 percent of the Army, accounted for 1.4 percent of suicide attempts, or 141 cases.

When it came to risk factors, the results showed that female soldiers were more likely to attempt suicide than men.

"Suicide attempts are much more common than suicide completion," study author Dr. Robert J. Ursano told CBS News. "In contrast to suicide completions, which are mostly men, females are at a higher risk for suicide attempts."

Soldiers currently age 29 or younger, those who did not finish high school, and those who had entered the Army at 25 or older were also more likely to attempt suicide. Additionally, researchers found a higher risk for soldiers who were in their first four years of service and those with a previous mental health diagnosis.

Furthermore, the risk of suicide among enlisted soldiers was highest in the second month of service and then decreased as length of service continued. Deployed soldiers were less likely than never-deployed and previously deployed soldiers to attempt suicide.

Rates of attempted suicide were lower among black, Hispanic, and Asian soldiers.

For officers, the risk of suicide was higher among those who were female, entered the Army at 25 or older, and had a history of mental health issues. Decreased odds of suicide were seen in officers who were 40 or older. Length of service and deployment status were not associated with suicide attempts among officers.

Though the study did not look at specific intervention methods, Ursano said it offers direction as to where and when they are most needed.

"The data would suggest that interventions should be directed early in the career service and need to be directed toward both men and women," he said, "and that they need to occur before deployment, since that's when the highest risk is, as well as after deployment."

Ursano said that future research will focus on the reasons why women are at a greater risk of attempted suicide, why the risk is lower among deployed soldiers, and which mental health disorders carry the highest risk.

"The overall goal is to be able to understand how does one get from health to suicide ideation to suicide plans to completed suicide," he said. "What are the transitions that happen? Suicide attempts are a big part of that story."

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