GRAFENWÖHR, Germany — Starting this summer, researchers plan to survey up to 400,000 soldiers as part of the largest study to date of suicide and mental health among military personnel.
It’s the next phase in a $50 million, five-year study the Army and the The National Institute of Mental Health have been conducting since 2008 in hopes of identifying risk factors and providing a scientific basis for efforts to reduce troops’ suicide rates.
“This is an extraordinary opportunity to assist the Army in addressing a pressing military health issue,” NIMH director Thomas R. Insel said in the statement.
Historically, the suicide rate has been lower in the military than among civilians, but in 2005 that pattern was reversed. In June, there were 21 active-duty and 11 reserve soldier suicides, including seven in Iraq or Afghanistan, the most on record.
“While the stresses of the current wars (in Iraq and Afghanistan), including long and repeated deployments and post-traumatic stress, are important potential contributors for research to address, suicidal behavior is a complex phenomenon,” the NIMH statement said.
The Study To Assess Risk and Resilience in Service-members, or Army STARRS, will be conducted by researchers from the Uniformed Services University of the Health Services, University of Michigan, Harvard University and Columbia University as well as Army and NIMH scientists.
Over the next three years, the researchers plan to survey as many as 120,000 new soldiers doing basic combat training, according to an Army press statement. They also will collect information from about 90,000 “combat-seasoned” active-duty soldiers, including members of the reserve-component who have deployed.
“It is expected that as many as 400,000 Soldiers will eventually participate,” the statement said.
Participation is voluntary, the Army said.
The researchers will begin the confidential survey at basic training bases Fort Leonard Wood, Mo., Fort Jackson, S.C., Fort Sill, Okla., and Fort Benning, Ga., then move on to bases where combat-seasoned troops are located, including Fort Bragg, N.C., Fort Drum, N.Y., and Fort Hood, Texas.
Participants will be asked to complete a paper questionnaire, take online surveys, or participate in one-on-one interviews about their psychological and physical health, and history of exposure to adverse events, NIMH officials said.
The researchers also will seek information on suicide-related behavior, risk and protective factors and, when possible, ask volunteers to provide saliva and blood samples for genetic and neurobiological studies, the NIMH statement said.
Although it is expected to take at least five years to complete, the study should start producing information on who is at risk and how to protect them very quickly, according to the Army STARRS website.
So, with each new round of data collection and findings, investigators will be able to update and send their recommendations to the Army.
In addition to the surveys, researchers are reviewing existing historical information the Army has, including the personnel and medical records of soldiers who have committed suicide. It will examine factors related to and independent of military service, including unit cohesion, exposure to combat-related trauma, personal and economic stresses, family history, childhood adversity and abuse, and overall mental health, the NIMH statement said.
In comments posted on YouTube, Col. Chris Philbrick, director of the Army Suicide Prevention Task Force, said the study was crafted over a year ago to address the spike in servicemember suicides.
“It’s a comprehensive examination of the Army’s programs, policies, procedures,” he said. “Do we have the right resources? Are there gaps in our policies, for example?”
On Thursday the Army’s Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Peter W. Chiarelli will be releasing a report of a 15-month study the Army started when the Suicide Prevention Task Force was convened in March 2009.