A wide-ranging study examining suicide among troops has revealed that female soldiers are three times more likely to kill themselves downrange than while not deployed, and that married soldiers are less likely to commit suicide than their single or divorced counterparts.
These findings, drawn from the records of about 900,000 soldiers serving between 2004 and 2008, are the preliminary results of a sweeping five-year study by the National Institute of Mental Health and the Army.
Suicides among female soldiers rose from five per 100,000 to 15 per 100,000 when they went downrange, the study found. Male soldiers still killed themselves when downrange at a higher rate — 21 per 100,000 — than female soldiers, and deployment elevated their risk of suicide by 50 percent.
“We were expecting to see elevated risk in all soldiers, both men and women, during deployment,” said Michael Schoenbaum, part of a team of researchers who worked on the study and a senior adviser for the National Institute of Mental Health. “What we didn’t expect was that the change in risk would be so much larger for women than it was for men.”
The next step in the research, Schoenbaum said, will be to understand what circumstances affect female soldiers’ mental health most during deployments: children, marriage, duties, combat experience or other, unknown factors.
“What fraction of the unit is made up of women?” he said. “That might have an effect.”
Scientists also are seeing marriage as a potential suicide deterrent. A similar trend has been observed among civilians, leading some researchers to conclude that the support and companionship found in marriage provide protective mental health benefits. But why marriage would help prevent soldiers from committing suicide when deployed needs to be examined more closely and will be part of further investigations, Schoenbaum said.
“The difference might reflect the possibility that those who are married tend to engage in less risky behaviors compared to those who are not married,” the researchers wrote.
This initial slice of data represents the first findings to come from the $50 million study, called the Army Study to Assess Risk and Resilience in Servicemembers, or Army STARRS. Begun in 2009, the study was designed to scientifically examine suicides, identify their causes and find ways to prevent them.
“We’re not suddenly going to eliminate suicide,” Schoenbaum said. “But we have an opportunity to identify risk and protective measures from information the Army has already been collecting.”
Now the researchers will parse the data further, looking for other potential risk factors, such as a soldier’s duties, the number of soldiers killed within a unit, combat experience and others. Besides examining past suicides, the researchers will also track as many as 120,000 new soldiers from basic combat training to first deployments and onward.
The suicide rate has vexed Army officials since it began to increase in 2004. In the past six years it has more than doubled, from 10 per 100,000 to 22 per 100,000 among active-duty soldiers. The rate among civilians within the same age group is 20 per 100,000.
Officials grappling with the problem received some encouraging news last year when the number of active-duty troops who killed themselves decreased for the first time. But that number was offset by an increase in suicides among non-active-duty troops within the Army’s National Guard and reserve units. Last year, the number of soldier suicides rose to 343, the most recorded in any year.
Col. Chris Philbrick, deputy director of the Army’s health promotion and risk reduction task force, said he was excited about the initial findings, but advised against quick conclusions. Both he and Schoenbaum pointed out that it’s difficult to discern statistical correlations from such a low number of people. Of the hundreds of thousands of soldiers in the study, there were 389 suicides.
“Each of these is a tragic event,” Schoenbaum said. “But for statistical analysis, it’s a relatively small number.”
Looking at the increase in the rate of women killing themselves downrange, Philbrick said that only a handful of the suicides within the study were female soldiers. Thus, a single death downrange significantly alters the rate.
“I am cautious that it may not be an accurate reflection” of a trend, he said.
Still, Philbrick said he was “optimistic” that the study would eventually provide Army leaders with a set of risk factors for mental health problems, much the same way the Framingham heart study — a multi-generation study of heart disease in a single Massachusetts population — identified the risk factors associated with a range of cardiovascular diseases.
As the suicide study continues, more records will be added, including those of soldiers activated through the National Guard and the reserve. When the next set of results will be released is unknown, but Army officials receive a quarterly update, Philbrick said.
“As we receive information that it is of benefit, we are going to get it out there,” he said. “We are not going to sit on it, and we are learning more each and every day.”