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Study: Rising Military Suicide Rate Not Linked To Deployment


A new study out today finds that the rising number of suicides in the military is not caused by deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan. The paper says mental health and alcohol abuse are much stronger indicators that a service member will commit suicide. As NPR's Larry Abramson reports, that finding runs smack into other evidence that says there is a connection.

LARRY ABRAMSON, BYLINE: Suicide rates in the military have risen dramatically since the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan began. So Cynthia LeardMann of the Naval Health Research Center wanted to know whether there's truth to a common assumption that the wars are to blame. She studied records from over 150,000 current and former members of all the armed forces from 2001 to 2008. Her finding: There's no clear link regardless of the type of deployment.

CYNTHIA LEARDMANN: We examined multiple factors: recent deployments, combat experiences in the recent deployments. We examined number of cumulative days as well as the number of tours.

ABRAMSON: No matter how they looked at it, LeardMann and her team found that long deployments did not increase the risk of suicide. In a study published today in the Journal of the American Medical Association, Cynthia LeardMann writes that other factors clearly do play a role. The strongest predictor, she says, is mental health.

LEARDMANN: Specifically depression, manic-depressive disorder and alcohol-related problems were significantly associated with the suicide risk.

ABRAMSON: That raises questions about whether efforts to stop suicides in the military should focus more on mental health and less on whether soldiers have served overseas. But the study has limitations, and it runs counter to other work that does find a link with the wars overseas. First, this latest study stops in 2008, so it excludes some periods of intense combat and rising suicide rates.

And even though the number of service members studied is quite large, suicide is still a rare event. Of more than 100,000 cases studied, the population experienced 83 suicides. Michael Schoenbaum is the principal investigator for a different study for the Army known as STARRS, which has shown a link.

DR. MICHAEL SCHOENBAUM: There is a significant increase in suicide risk associated with the first deployment.

ABRAMSON: The STARRS study is much larger, but it is focused only on the Army, which has the highest suicide rate among all the services. Despite that apparent contradiction, Schoenbaum agrees the stress of exposure to war is not the biggest factor that doctors should be looking for.

SCHOENBAUM: Certainly the most potent risk factors at the individual level for suicide are, you know, indicators of psychological distress.

ABRAMSON: Clinicians add that the factors leading to a suicide make up a complex web. Alcohol abuse and combat stress are seldom found in isolation. So the findings may not matter that much when it comes down to designing treatment for an individual soldier. The rising number of post-traumatic stress cases and rising suicide rates have tended to direct more resources toward soldiers with experience in combat zones.

Brett Morash just left the Navy and now works with veterans. He says this latest study may have missed the fact that Iraq and Afghanistan stepped up the demands on everyone, including those who stayed home.

BRETT MORASH: The people that were left back in garrison, their jobs either got more complex or more hours or all sorts of stressors.

ABRAMSON: Many who work with families of suicide victims say they were not surprised by the study. They have long suspected that deployment is not the biggest risk factor. They are more concerned with something this study did not analyze: the continuing fear among many service members that seeking help for mental health issues will hurt their careers. Larry Abramson, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Larry Abramson is NPR's National Security Correspondent. He covers the Pentagon, as well as issues relating to the thousands of vets returning home from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.