Suicide rates have been increasing among all active U.S. Navy, Air Force and Army personnel, but those in the Army appear to be most at risk, new research indicates.
An analysis of all U.S. military suicides between 2005 and 2011 revealed that the suicide rate among Army members was roughly double that seen among the second highest risk group, the Marines.
The investigation further revealed that guns are the principal cause of most military suicides. Firearms were implicated in more than 62 percent of all suicide cases that have a definitive cause of death, the study found.
“The trends in suicide are similar to what others have found,” said study lead author Andrew Anglemyer, from California State University, Monterey Bay. “The differences in those rates between services are striking, though. Not only are most suicides in the active duty military among the Army personnel, but the suicide rate among Army personnel is the highest and has been every year since 2006.”
Suicide was the 10th leading cause of death in the United States as of 2010. And the current investigation comes amid a rising suicide rate among military personnel throughout the last 15 years of continual war. In fact, the U.S. military has seen its overall suicide rate nearly double between 2001 and 2011, the researchers said.
Surprisingly, a separate report found that it wasn’t the soldiers serving in combat positions who were most at risk of suicide. Since the Iraq and Afghanistan wars began, those in the Army at highest risk of a suicide attempt had never been deployed. In fact, that study found that two months into service was the riskiest time in terms of suicide. The report was released last month from the Center for the Study of Traumatic Stress at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences, in Bethesda, Md.
The latest study looked at suicides among all active-duty enlisted U.S. military personnel as recorded by the “Suicide Data Repository.” This listing combines information from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Death Index, and the Military Mortality Database.
The research team identified 1,455 U.S. military suicides between 2005 and 2011. The Army had the highest rates between 2006 and 2011. There were between roughly 19 and 30 cases of suicide for every 100,000 soldiers. The most commonly held positions were in infantry or special operations, the study found.
The lowest suicide rate — nearly 10 suicides for every 100,000 — was seen among both Air Force and Navy personnel in the year 2005, the study showed.
Of all the military cases, men accounted for the lion’s share of suicides at 95 percent. More than three-quarters of the suicides involved white service members. Marital status didn’t appear to exert any influence on suicide risk. The vast majority of suicides (87 percent) involved service members who had no more than a high school education, the research revealed.
Across all military branches, the average age at suicide was 25. The median length of time served by a military member who took his life was four years, the study said.
Firearms were the most common means used in suicide. Soldiers and Marines who had served in combat infantry or special operations were the most likely to use firearms to die by suicide, the study said.
“The reasons for the differences in suicide risk between services are not well understood,” Anglemyer said. “Some have speculated that it may be deployment-related, but this has not yet been fully worked out.”
“Future investigations of mission-specific factors contributing to a service member’s risk for suicide are needed,” added Anglemyer. He will be an assistant professor with the operations research department at the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif., as of mid-June.
Psychologist Alan Peterson contended that the suicide differences between the branches of the military “reflect the tremendous burden accepted and sacrifices made by the U.S. Army over the past 14 years.”
“More U.S. Army personnel have been deployed, injured and killed in action than for all other U.S. military branches combined,” said Peterson. He is chair of psychiatry and chief of behavioral medicine at the School of Medicine at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio. He also serves as an associate director of research at the university’s Military Health Institute.
The study was published in the June 6 issue of the Annals of Internal Medicine.
Learn more about suicide risk factors at the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.