This week is National Suicide Prevention Week, and we’ve invited John Bateson to write a series of articles on one group that is particularly vulnerable: military service members. Read Step 1 of 5.
According to a new study of nearly four million men and women who served in the military between 2001 and 2007, deploying to a war zone doesn’t increase a service member’s risk of suicide. The study was conducted by the military’s National Center for Telehealth and Technology, and its findings would seem to serve the military’s purpose. After all, if no causal connection is found between deployment and suicide, recruitment efforts aren’t affected. Researchers hedged a little by noting that they didn’t have access to data on combat exposure, just time spent in a war zone. It’s not much of a caveat, however, considering the asymmetrical aspect of modern warfare and the fact that anyone in a war zone risks being hurt or killed. A more important finding, which received less media attention, was that the results differed for the Army. According to the study, both current and former soldiers experience elevated risks for suicide. Since soldiers constitute the majority of our ground forces, this is notable and contradicts, to some extent, the study’s findings.
That said, a number of experts both inside and outside the military have noted that up to half of all service members and veterans who kill themselves never deploy. They don’t get close to a war zone, much less participate in combat, yet take their lives anyway. Knowing this, the results of the study make sense. Exposure to combat can heighten the risk, but by itself isn’t a determining factor. So what is, and how can it be dealt with effectively?
If military officials truly want to solve the problem, they will be less interested in separating suicide from combat exposure and focus instead on the changes that occur during training.
If military officials truly want to solve the problem, they will be less interested in separating suicide from combat exposure and focus instead on the changes that occur during training. This is when troops learn to be tough, aggressive, and not show any sign of weakness. They learn to suppress emotions, deal with conflict through violence, become intolerant to pain, and be fearless in the face of death. Not coincidentally, these are the same qualities that make an individual more at risk for suicide. Developing ways to reverse this training once someone leaves the service, then implementing them, will go a long way toward ending the problem.
Then there is the fact that troops have easy access to lethal means. They learn how to handle all kinds of weapons, and after they leave the service they often keep firearms nearby for protection and security. Another recent study, this one by Department of Veterans Affairs, found that female military veterans have a suicide rate that is nearly six times higher than female non-veterans. Contributing factors are thought to be higher incidences of sexual assaults in the military and higher rates of PTSD among females. Overlooked was that civilian women who are suicidal tend to overdose while female vets are more likely to use a firearm, which is deadlier. Restricting access to lethal means is difficult in the military, but not impossible. In Israel, the suicide rate for men age 20 to 24—a high-risk group among civilians, and higher in Israel because of mandated military service—was reduced by 40 percent when soldiers no longer were allowed to take their weapons home on weekends. One small institutional change has saved hundreds of lives.
In the past decade, the number of suicides by active-duty troops and veterans has reached epidemic proportions. In response, the military has implemented a variety of strategies—all well-intentioned, but collectively not enough. Military suicides don’t start with combat; they start with basic training. Answers to ending them start there, too.
Feature Image: USA flag by marlidia. CC0 via Pixabay.