Among Soldiers, Risk Of Suicide May Have Surprising Roots

The journal JAMA Psychiatry is publishing initial findings from the largest-ever study of soldiers and suicide. They say a higher rate of those in the military have pre-existing mental conditions.

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For years, people in the military had a lower rate of suicide than their civilian counterparts. About 10 years ago that started to change and now the rate is worse for soldiers than civilians. That prompted the largest-ever study of suicide among soldiers, in cooperation with the National Institutes of Health. The study is on-going, but three initial articles have been published.

And NPR's Quil Lawrence joins us to talk about the findings. Quil, this has been a puzzle in recent years. Why are there so many suicides in the military? Have the researchers found any answers to that?

QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: If they didn't financers what they found were commonalities. They went through records and interviews with thousands and thousands of soldiers, between 2004 and 2009, and found these commonalities. One of the most interesting ones was that there were pre-existing conditions. In one-third of the attempts - the suicide attempts - in the Army over those years, were linked to a condition that the soldier had before enlisting.

BLOCK: And when you're talking about pre-existing conditions, what kind of conditions are they talking about?

LAWRENCE: Well, they could be issues like attention deficit disorder, substance abuse, something called intermittent explosive disorder, which is another way of just saying people who have attacks of rage, violent anger which are incidentally much higher among those who enlist. On the other hand, you could say that these are the kind of people you want to be fighting your wars, is people who are very aggressive.

BLOCK: What about relaxed recruiting standards that were put in place at the height of the Iraq War around 2007, 2008? Did that mean that there were more people joining the military who were prone to these kinds of problems that you're talking about?

LAWRENCE: So far, the studies didn't find any correlation between those waivers which let people in, some of whom even had criminal records. There was no connection. But they did note that there was a connection increased suicide risk with people who got demoted, and that could have been for disciplinary reasons. People who got busted down in rank are more likely to attempt suicide.

BLOCK: Now, they did see suicide rate going up as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan intensified. Is deployment and repeated deployment to blame for that?

LAWRENCE: Well, one of the authors sort of states that hypothesis this way. He says, OK, war is hell and therefore people commit suicide because war messes them up. But it's really not that simple. There are clear indications that people who deploy, their chance of attempting suicide increases even many years later when they're back home. But it's also true that the rate of suicide in people who never deployed tripled over the same amount of time that was studied here.

Obviously there's a connection between post-traumatic stress disorder. Concussions from explosions are connected to depression and that's connected to suicide. But it seems to be that there is a larger effect here on the entire Army, whether you deployed or whether you never deployed, whether you're at home now, the entire force has been stressed.

BLOCK: Well, as the military comes to better understand the extent of the problem and the forces behind the problem, do the findings suggest anything that the military can do about it?

LAWRENCE: Well, this is the beginning of a huge project. It's notoriously difficult to study suicide. And it started out with the idea that they can use all this data to see what these people have in common. And they're hoping over the next year, when the study continues and perhaps into the future, to be able to come up with some recommendations for how the Army can better prevent suicide.

BLOCK: That's NPR's Quil Lawrence. Quil, thank you.

LAWRENCE: Thank you.

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