Researchers Find Suicide Trends Among U.S. Soldiers

A broad study of U.S. soldiers found that about 1 in 5 had mental illness before enrolling in the Army.

Surveys of and interviews with 5,428 soldiers showed that more than 8 percent had contemplated suicide.

Surveys of and interviews with 5,428 soldiers showed that more than 8 percent had contemplated suicide.

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A study of soldiers’ mental health found that 1 in 5 had some form of mental illness such as depression, panic disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder before joining the Army, the Los Angeles Times reports. The research represents the Army’s first attempt to examine soldiers' pre-enrollment as well as post-enrollment mental health and sheds light on potential flaws in the recruiting process.

[READ: Could a Blood Test Predict Suicide Risk?]

Surveys of and interviews with 5,428 soldiers at Army offices across the U.S. showed that more than 8 percent had contemplated suicide and another 1.1 percent had attempted it, the Times says. 

Nearly half of soldiers with a history of suicide reported that their first attempt happened before enrollment. Reporting such information would have excluded these soldiers from service, Dr. Matthew Friedman, a professor at the Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth College, wrote in an editorial that accompanied the reports.

“It is clear that this information was not disclosed at the time of enrollment," he wrote.

The findings were published in three reports in the journal JAMA Psychiatry this week. The research initiative was created by the Army and the National Institute of Mental Health with the intent of addressing the sudden increase in the military suicide rate. While soldiers historically had a lower rate of suicide than civilians, the reverse is now true.

"These studies provide knowledge on suicide risk and potentially protective factors in a military population that can also help us better understand how to prevent suicide in the public at large," National Institute of Mental Health Director Dr. Thomas R. Insel told CNN.

Much of the data was culled from the Army's STARRS (Study to Assess Risk and Resilience in Servicemembers) survey. A Pentagon spokeswoman told CNN the Defense Department would work to include the findings in the military's mental health procedures.

Another report published in the journal Psychological Medicine looked more closely at demographic variables to see if researchers could locate patterns that an Army commander might overlook. By looking at the data, researchers "could pinpoint little pockets of soldiers where there’s a problem and you can imagine doing something to fix it," says Ronald Kessler, a professor of health care policy at Harvard Medical School and an author of the study.

Kessler and his colleagues noticed some interesting patterns. For example, first-year soldiers accounted for nearly 15 percent of suicides among deployed, enlisted soldiers in their first four years of service. Often, a recruit is sent in as a replacement for another person at the last minute and separated from his or her training group.

[REPORT: No Link Between Deployment, Suicide in Military]

Suicide risk is also greater among those who in their first two years aren’t promoted on schedule or who are demoted. And although the suicide rate is higher for men, it is three times as high among women who are deployed as it is among women who were never deployed, Kessler says. Another curious finding: Married civilians have much lower suicide rates than single people or divorced people, but marriage isn’t a protective factor for soldiers.

“Having somebody at home, that seems to be protective while you’re away from home, but when you’re at home it doesn’t help,” he says.

The research is rooted in more than simple curiosity and serves a practical purpose, Kessler says.

“Our hope is in addition to doing just these big head counts, we’ll be able to discover a handful of important wrinkles like that, that if the Army went down and in a thoughtful way tried to wrestle one at a time with each of them, you’d put the whole thing together, and it really makes a substantial dent in the suicide problem,” he says.

Kessler believes the Army could benefit from providing targeted solutions and reframing the conversation of what it means to be a soldier. Ideally, the Army wouldn't use the surveys to filter out those with past mental health problems. Instead, he says they should treat improving one's mental health as just another part of training

“The Army does a very good job I think of providing treatment for soldiers after they’ve come back from war situations," Kessler says. "I don’t think they’ve really recognized how many people walk in the door with pre-existing problems and would probably profit from treatment before they go off to dangerous situations.”