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Seven warning signs of an impending military suicide

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The suicide rate among military personnel both active duty and veterans is at an alarming rate. According to a new study, more than 8% have considered killing themselves and 1.1% have attempted suicide at least once in the past. The study, published on March 3 in the journal JAMA Psychiatry was the result of confidential surveys and interviews with 5,428 soldiers at Army installations across the nation. It reviewed suicides and accident deaths among active duty Regular Army soldiers between January 1, 2004, and December 31, 2009 and found that approximately one in four active-duty soldiers who have not been deployed to combat have some type of diagnosable mental condition, and one in three who have made a suicide attempt had a pre-existing psychiatric disorder.

Suicide rates for soldiers who served in Iraq and Afghanistan more than doubled during the study period to more than 30-per -00,000,; in addition, the trend among those who never deployed nearly tripled to between 25- and 30-per-100,000. The rates for a civilian population of similar age and demographics did not change significantly during the study period: 19-per-100,000. Historically, the Army suicide rate was far lower than the civilian figure; however, it surpassed it in 2008 and kept climbing. Although the study period ended at the end of 2009, Army suicides have continued to rise in subsequent years. The rate plateaued in 2012, the dropped somewhat in 2013.

Other findings of the study were:

  • The investigators debunked theories that suicides were the result of two Army trends designed to recruit or retain people. One trend was the use of waivers for recruits with poor education or conduct records. The other was the practice of forcing soldiers to remain in the service beyond their enlistment, something known as “stop-loss.” The study found that neither practice contributed to the rise in suicides.
  • Some of the same risk factors that predict suicide, such as a history of mental health problems, a demotion in rank or a disciplinary action, also were found to predict suicidess among soldiers.
  • About one in four soldiers in the Army appear to suffer from at least one psychiatric disorder and one in 10 have multiple disorders.
  • Women have lower suicide rates than men in the Army except during deployments.

Certain risk factors may increase a person’s chance for attempting or committing suicide. An individual with another psychiatric disorder, including depression, bipolar disorder, alcohol or substance abuse, borderline or antisocial personality disorder, anxiety and impulsive anger or “intermittent explosive anger,” may have an increased risk of suicide. In addition, a personal history of previous suicide attempt or a family history of depression and suicide also increases a person’s risk.

With awareness of the risk factors and warning signs for suicide, the risk can be significantly minimized. Enlisted men and women are under tremendous stress; therefore it is extremely important for loved ones to understand and spot these signs. Knowing when and how to direct someone to get help can save a person’s life.

The seven warning signs are:

  • Clinical depression with signs of depressed mood, loss of interest, change in eating or sleeping patterns and withdrawal from social activities that seem to persist and/or get worse.
  • Feelings of hopelessness, helplessness or worthlessness
  • Preoccupation with death
  • Reckless behavior
  • Failure to take care of self
  • Increase in substance use
  • Talking about suicide or threatening suicide
  • Putting affairs in order (i.e., changing a will)

Suicide is preventable; however, not uncommonly, friends and relatives feel afraid and are uncertain about what to do. Some worry that bringing up the subject because they are fearful that it might trigger an attempt; others are not sure whether to take the threat seriously. Studies have found that taking action is always the best choice. Asking someone about their thoughts and feelings will not hurt the situation, it may actually help significantly. It is important to keep in mind that you are not alone when helping someone you love. Many resources are available for diagnosing and treating a loved one in crisis. If you note the aforementioned signs in a loved one, get help. Reach out to a healthcare professional, local health organization or hospital. It can save a life! The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-8255) is a free, 24-hour hotline available to anyone in suicidal crisis or emotional distress.