New Study: Combat Doesn't Affect Suicide Risk for Soldiers

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Studies in years past have caused a recent outcry regarding our soldiers' dwindling mental health, and after 2012 saw a rise in suicides (325 soldiers, up from the previous year of 2011 in which we lost 301 soldiers), the pressure was on the Pentagon to come up with an explanation for the disastrous numbers.

A new data analysis funded by the Department of Defense is pointing the finger at untreated mental health issues in its population of soldiers. The notion being put forward here is that U.S. soldiers are suffering the same mental health problems as everyone else. The study authors specifically cite depression, manic depression, and alcohol abuse.

The CNN report paraphrases a related editorial in the Journal of the American Medical Association as saying that the military will need to change the way it handles soldiers with mental illness. Most frequently, soldiers will avoid seeking a doctor's help for fear that it would jeopardize their military career.

About 150,000 members participated in the study with varying levels of rank, activity, and retirement. Bloomberg compares the 2008 military suicide count of 83 with the number of people participating in the study, concluding that our current and former service members are killing themselves at a rate of 12 out of 100,000.

As for the role PTSD may have played, the authors found that only 10 percent of those who committed suicide had been diagnosed or reported symptoms of PTSD. In contrast, 55 of those 83 individuals had reported drinking heavily.

The conclusion researchers drew from the data was that the majority of those who committed suicide were either drinkers who struggled with depression or had simply been diagnosed with manic depression. The study defined "heavy drinking" as men who drank more than 14 drinks per week, women who drank more than 7 drinks per week, or binge drinkers (they classified a man binge-drinking 5 per day, and a woman binge-drinking 4 per day).

Bloomberg spoke with Col. Charles Engel of the Army Medical Corps, who wrote the aforementioned editorial. Engel proposes an effort to enforce civilian standards of confidentiality. "Unless we’re dealing with an imminent risk to combat or a tactical mission, really we should be using civilians’ standards," he said.

The new study does not, however, take into account the sharp spike in soldier suicides since 2008. The study authors note that their findings are inconsistent with the idea that length and number of deployments as well as direct combat experience contribute to suicide risk; that said, they are unable to rule out the possibility of long-term psychological effects resulting from prolonged and frequent deployment into combat for the United States.