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University case study shows 60 percent drop in soldier suicide attempts

By JANE ROBERTS | The Commercial Appeal, Memphis, Tenn. (Tribune News Service) | Published: February 16, 2015

Research led by Dr. David Rudd, president of the University of Memphis, shows a significant drop in suicide attempts among Army veterans who took part in 12 hours of therapy designed to help them change their behavior and be more optimistic about their lives.

Active-duty soldiers who received the therapy once or twice a week for up to three months were 60 percent less likely to attempt suicide in the two years after the treatment than those who received standard treatment in military mental health clinics.

“The primary difference and most distinctive element in the treatment is its short-term nature and skill-development focus,” said Rudd, one of the nation’s leading experts in suicide prevention and post-traumatic stress syndrome in military personnel.

Rudd and Dr. Craig Bryan, clinical psychologist at the University of Utah and executive director of the National Center for Veterans Studies, conducted the study of 152 male soldiers at Fort Carson, Colorado. All had either attempted suicide or were considered to be a high-risk for suicide.

The study ran from 2010 to 2013. Rudd was dean of the University of Utah before he moved to Memphis in 2013.

Besides being supportive and giving advice for handling the issues in the veterans’ lives, the therapists worked to help them change the way they viewed themselves and the way they reacted to events.

“We would practice the responses over and over again,” Bryan said. “We focused on stress management in the first stages and basic coping skills. We taught them simple strategies they could use to ride out the storm, including relaxing exercises. We had them focus on their reasons for living and gave them a checklist of what to do when you are in crises.”

The study was funded by the Army’s Military Operational Medicine Research Program.

Research shows that people in intense stress, including those who have attempted suicide, temporarily lose their ability to solve problems. The therapists taught the soldiers how to do that again, Bryan said, by reaching out to friends or concentrating on the reasons they had to live.

Treating suicidal behavior in outpatient therapy “works well in a military structure because there is limited time for care in terms of problems like this,” Rudd said.

And by treating self-destructive behavior, “it enabled the soldiers to engage more effectively in long-term care for other problems,” Rudd said. “Compared to hospitalization, it dramatically reduced the cost of treatment.”

Rudd was the first psychologist to research suicide prevention within the military. His work influenced others, including a researcher at the University of Pennsylvania whose work in 10 therapy sessions was shown to reduce suicide by 50 percent.

Rudd and Bryan built on that study, adapting the research to fit a male, military population. It includes the longest follow-up time in the field of suicide prevention, Rudd said.

The work was a collaboration by the U of M, University of Utah, the UT Health Science Center at San Antonio, Texas, and Evans Army Community Hospital at Fort Carson, Utah.

Rudd and Bryan are now applying for an $18 million grant to expand the research to the National Guard and other branches of the military, including female members in each.

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©2015 The Commercial Appeal (Memphis, Tenn.)

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