Army suicides have risen dramatically since Iraq invasion, study shows

Members of the Army train in Hawaii. Members of the Army train in Hawaii. David Goldman/AP

Suicide rates among Army personnel have increased by 80 percent since the military began sending troops to Iraq, a new study shows.

Army suicides were trending downward from 1977 to 2003, but started rising in 2004, according to the study written by officials from the service’s Public Health Command and published Thursday in Injury Prevention, an international peer-reviewed journal for health professionals. Around the same time, there was a prevalent increase in mental disorders among the Army. Male soldiers, troops with mental health disorders treated on an outpatient basis and those in lower enlisted ranks had higher risk of suicide.

“This study does not show that U.S. military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan cause suicide,” study contributing author and spokeswoman Dr. Michelle Chervak, senior epidemiologist at the U.S. Army Public Health Command, told Government Executive. “This study suggests that an Army engaged in prolonged combat operations is a population under stress, and that mental health conditions and suicide can be expected to increase under these circumstances.”

Around 40 percent of the suicides since 2004 might be associated with Iraq-related military events, the study’s authors said. About 20 in every 100,000 soldiers committed suicide in 2008. Nearly one-third of suicides that year occurred among troops who were not deployed. Chervak emphasized, however, that even during peacetime, 10 to 15 in every 100,000 soldiers die by suicide.

The research was based on data from the Defense Casualty Information Processing System and Defense Medical Surveillance System, and took six months to complete.

Chervak said prevention strategies for soldiers -- some of which the Army already has implemented -- could include more education of chaplains, primary care doctors and other individuals who interact with those most at risk for mental health disorders. The study also suggested initiating mental health and suicide awareness programs, as well as mental fitness and resiliency training.

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