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Army Suicides Up 80% in Four Years

US Army in Iraq

Not all of the deaths among Army personnel occur on the battle field. According to the US Army Public Health Command, Army suicides increased 80 percent in four years, between 2004 and 2008, a rate that surpassed the suicides committed by civilians.

Army suicides started to rise after 2003

Between 1977 and 2003, the suicide rates among soldiers on active duty followed the expected trend and had even declined slightly. But then the rate began to rise, about the same time the United States committed a significant number of troops to Iraq and then continued on in Afghanistan.

The investigators analyzed data from 1977-2008 using the Army Behavioural Health Integrated Data Environment and calculated suicide rates and trends of mental health disorders using data from the Defense Casualty Information Processing System and Defense Medical Surveillance System.

Overall, the suicide rate increased by more than 80% between 2004 and 2008 among Army personnel, while the suicide rate among civilians remained stable throughout that period. More specifically:

  • During 2007 and 2008, 255 (241 men) soldiers on active duty committed suicide
  • Soldiers between the ages of 18 and 24 accounted for 45% of the suicides
  • 54% of the suicides occurred among soldiers of low rank
  • 69% of the suicides occurred among soldiers who had been in active combat
  • Individuals with major depression were more than 11 times as likely to commit suicide, while those with anxiety disorders were 10 times as likely to do so

The rise in the number of suicides coincided with an increase in the number of other mental health issues. In relation to mental health disorders, the combined rates of outpatient consultations for disorders (mood disorders, anxiety disorders, adjustment disorders, and substance related disorders) nearly doubled from 2000 to 2008.

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However, the most dramatic increase in mental health disorders was seen from 2003 to 2008, from a rate of 116 per 1,000 person-years in 2003 to 216 per 1,000 person-years in 2008. In addition, soldiers who had been hospitalized for a mental health disorder were more than 15 times as likely to commit suicide as those who had not been in the hospital.

The disturbing statistics revealed in this study echo those of another study published in late 2010, entitled “Self-Inflicted Deaths Among Women with U.S. Military Service: A Hidden Epidemic?”

In that study, researchers evaluated data on 5,948 female suicides that occurred between 2004 and 2007 and found that the suicide rate among female veterans ages 18 to 34 was nearly three times the suicide rate among female nonveterans.

Commenting on this latest study, which appears in Injury Prevention, the authors concluded that the increase in suicides, “unprecedented in over 30 years of US Army records, suggests that approximately 40% of suicides that occurred in 2008 may be associated with post-2003 events following the major commitment of troops to Iraq, in addition to the ongoing operations in Afghanistan.”

Bachynski KE, Canham-Chervak M et al. Mental health risk factors for suicides in the US Army. 2007-8. Injury Prevention doi:10.1136/injuryprev-2011-040112

Image: Courtesy Wikimedia Commons