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New study finds no elevated risk of suicide for servicemembers who deployed to Iraq, Afghanistan

By HAL BERNTON | The Seattle Times | Published: April 1, 2015

SEATTLE (Tribune News Service) — A study of more than 3.9 million men and women who served in the military during the post-9/11 era found that deploying to a war zone did not result in an elevated risk of suicide.

Instead, it found higher rates of suicide among those who served less than four years in the military, or did not leave military service with an honorable discharge.

“There is sometimes an impression that anyone who deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan is at risk of suicide, and the study shows that is not supported by the data,” said Mark Reger, a researcher based at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash., who is co-author of the study published Wednesday online in JAMA Psychiatry.

Suicides have been a major concern in the military during the post-9/11 years, with the rates in the Army and Marine Corps almost doubling during the past decade.

The study launched by the JBLM-based National Center for Telehealth and Technology covered military personnel who served between 2001 and 2007. It tracked suicides while they were in uniform and also was able to identify — through 2009 — how many suicides occurred after they left the military.

The study found that someone who served less than one year in the military before discharge had more than triple the risk of suicide than someone who served 20 or more years. It also found that servicemembers who did not receive an honorable discharge had a 21 percent higher risk of suicide than a servicemember who received an honorable discharge.

The study comes with an important caveat: Many servicemembers who deployed did not come under fire.

The researchers lacked the data to determine the numbers of military personnel in the study who were exposed to combat. The study does not try to draw any conclusions about whether military personnel involved in the traumatic events of the battlefield may have higher rates of suicide.

“Unfortunately in our data set we did not have combat-exposure data, so I can’t comment on that,” said Reger, who noted that servicemembers with high rates of combat exposure, combat injuries and who had adjustment problems after deployment all required additional study.

The researchers also noted their results differed from an Army study that looked only at suicides among active-duty Army personnel. That study did find elevated suicide risks among presently and previously deployed soldiers.

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