HealthDay News — In a study of almost 4 million American military personnel, serving in Iraq or Afghanistan was not associated with suicide risk, a new study finds.
The suicide rate among members of the military has increased over the past decade and seeing action in Iraq and Afghanistan seemed a likely culprit. But that appears not to be the case, said lead researcher Mark Reger, PhD, a clinical psychologist at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Tacoma, Wash. Rather, it is the separation from the service and readjustment to civilian life that plays a greater role, he said.
Reger’s group did find an association between suicide risk and separation from military service, especially for those who served less than four years, he said. However, the study, published in JAMA Psychiatry, did not prove a cause-and-effect link.
Reger explained that leaving military service can result in a loss of identity. “A lot of service members talk about the importance of being connected to their unit, having a sense of a really important mission. And when they leave military service, that is gone,” he said.
People separating from the military are also often confronted with financial, family and social problems that can be extremely stressful, Reger said. For example, returning to civilian life means finding a job, not only to pay bills, but to give meaning to their lives, he explained.
And some of those who left the service early may have left with dishonorable discharges or because of a mental health issue, he added.
Service members with an honorable discharge had about half the suicide rate compared with those who did not have an honorable discharge, the researchers found.
“Whatever the challenges were that led to that early separation may be important to understating suicide risk,” he said.
Reger thinks that preventing suicides might start by targeting those who leave military service early and connecting these individuals with mental health professionals. “Our data suggest that if we are going to target some prevention efforts, that group who leaves military service early would be a reasonable group to target,” he said.
Reger MA, et al. Risk of Suicide Among US Military Service Members Following Operation Enduring Freedom or Operation Iraqi Freedom Deployment and Separation From the US Military. JAMA Psychiatry. 2015; doi:10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2014.3195.