Health

Deployment to Iraq or Afghanistan did not increase vets' suicide risk, study finds

Soldiers with the 1st Infantry Division bow their heads in prayer before a deployment ceremony for another tour in Iraq August 13, 2009 at Fort Riley, Kansas.
Soldiers with the 1st Infantry Division bow their heads in prayer before a deployment ceremony for another tour in Iraq August 13, 2009 at Fort Riley, Kansas.
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While the suicide rate among active duty U.S. military has increased in the last decade, a large-scale study has found that it was not associated with deployment to the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan. The study also found that those who left the service were at higher risk for suicide, particularly those who spent less than four years in the military.

The co-authors reviewed information covering 3.9 million men and women who were attached to one of the uniformed services from Oct. 2001 through  Dec. 2007. They reviewed suicide data from Oct. 2001 through Dec. 2009. Of the roughly 5,000 suicides during that period, the study found a nearly identical rate among those service members who had deployed to combat theaters and those who had not. That finding was consistent with a study of 83 suicides published in 2013, it added.

The new study is published in JAMA Psychiatry. The co-authors work at the Department of Veterans Affairs, Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Tacoma, Washington, and the University of Washington Tacoma.

Those who separated from military service had an increased risk of suicide compared with those who had not separated, and among the service members who had left, "both those who deployed and those who had not deployed showed similarly elevated risks for suicide," noted the study. 

"Individuals with less than four years of service had an increased rate of suicide," it said, adding that there are "several possible explanations for these findings," including a difficult transition to civilian life.

In addition, people might leave the military early due to substance abuse...legal problems or misconduct, and, "many, if not all of those, are known suicide risk factors," says Mark Reger, the study's lead author and the deputy director of the National Center for Telehealth and Technology at Joint Base Lewis-McChord.

"The very things that might cause some people to leave military service early are also known risk factors from other studies for suicide," Reger notes.

Regarding the lower suicide risk among personnel who deployed to war zones, the study noted that service members must undergo physical and mental health screenings "to ensure that they are fit to deploy. Therefore, the cohort that deploys may be healthier than the general military population."

The study called for more research "to address other variables that may influence the complex relationship between deployment and suicide," adding that "it is possible" that combat injuries, mental health and other factors "alone and in combination with deployment increase suicide risk."