Suicide and the Military

By Amy Menna, Ph.D., LMHC, CAP

suicide and the militaryWhen someone commits suicide, it’s a tragedy. When we are losing more soldiers to suicide than to the Afghanistan war, it’s a tragic epidemic.

In June of 2010, there were more than 32 confirmed or suspected suicides among soldiers. Studies confirm that individuals in the military are at higher risk than the general population due to the situations to which they are exposed. Wartime pressures are high, and soldiers come back from combat showing signs of psychiatric illnesses and addictions. These factors can combine into a powerful cocktail that triggers thoughts of suicide. It’s time to take a closer look at them.

This article is about prevention. It will detail some of the warning signs soldiers exhibit prior to a suicide attempt and will discuss preventive measures. Yet this article is for everyone; it has been estimated that 65% (PTSD Research Quarterly) of the general population knows someone who has committed suicide.

Military efforts to reduce risk have improved and new programs are being created. But although suicide prevention rides on the shoulders of the government, it depends on other soldiers and civilians as well. It is imperative that we are armed with awareness and effective prevention measures.

Disorders Commonly Found Among Suicidal Soldiers

The military has identified Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), other mental illnesses, and addiction as suicide risk factors. Understanding conditions like these can help individuals ascertain that someone is at risk and provide the support they need.

The following disorders are commonplace among soldiers who commit suicide. Some of the signs and symptoms will be explained in detail. Please note that when someone meets the following criteria, it does not necessarily mean they are suicidal. These are simply red flag disorders often associated with thoughts of self-harm. This is also not an exhaustive list of predictors; soldiers may exhibit other behaviors that signal concern.

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) may result from exposure to a traumatic event. It is the body’s and the mind’s way of responding to an overwhelming situation involving fear. And, as often the case for soldiers, the threat of, or contact with, death.

PTSD is characterized by clusters of three kinds of symptoms: intrusive, arousal, and avoidance. All three of these need not be present to be concerned about the possibility of suicide among a soldier.

Intrusive Symptoms: These are symptoms that literally intrude in a soldier’s life. They are thoughts and feelings associated with combat that come “out of the blue.” Intrusive symptoms may come in the form of nightmares, flashbacks, or negative reactions to anything associated with combat or the military in general.

Arousal Symptoms: When someone is experiencing intrusive symptoms, their anxiety will begin to peak. This results from not knowing when the next intrusive symptom will occur. This response mirrors the “fight” response to a stimulus. An example of an arousal symptom is an exaggerated startle response commonly referred to as “jumpiness” or “watchful waiting.” The soldier may feel “on edge” all the time as if something is going to harm him or her. These symptoms may manifest themselves in irritability or explosiveness.

Avoidance Symptoms: It is normal to want to avoid something that is painful. If intrusive and arousal symptoms are painful enough, the soldier may make every attempt to avoid the pain associated with them. This is the “flight” response. Avoidance symptoms include not wanting to talk about the combat or military experience, not remembering key events, “checking out” when reminders of the trauma are presented, or engaging in drug and alcohol use.

Depression

Depression is common in individuals who have thoughts of suicide. It is important to note that there is a normal depression that comes along with having a traumatic event in the past. This does not necessarily mean that it will lead to suicide.

Some symptoms of depression include:

  • Feelings of helplessness and hopelessness – feeling as if nothing will get better and there is nothing that one can do to improve the situation
  • Loss in interest in daily activities
  • Loss of ability to experience joy and pleasure
  • Appetite or weight changes – either losing or gaining a significant amount of weight
  • Irritability and restlessness – low tolerance for stress
  • Loss of energy – feeling fatigued or physically drained
  • Feelings of low self worth or excessive guilt
  • Concentration problems
  • Changes in sleep pattern – either sleeping significantly more or less than normal

Anxiety

Anxiety can be described as a continuing state of hyper-vigilance. It is constantly feeling as if something bad is about to happen. Anxiety can manifest itself both mentally and physically. Symptoms of anxiety vary from person to person. Some individuals may feel acute panic at certain times, while others may feel nervous about everything no matter what the significance.

Symptoms of anxiety include:

  • Feelings of panic or fear
  • Feeling uneasy most of the time
  • Obsessive thoughts
  • Negative thoughts about the future
  • Ritualistic behavior such as checking doors or washing hands
  • Problems sleeping
  • Sweaty or tingling hands
  • Shortness of breath
  • Heart palpitations
  • Muscle tension
  • Inability to stay calm
  • Explosiveness

Addiction

At times, addiction may accompany a history of trauma or the disorders described above. A simple description of addiction is continued use despite consequences associated with the use of a substance. To illustrate, if a soldier often exhibits problematic behavior (like aggressiveness or increased depression) when using alcohol yet continues to drink, abuse issues may be present.

Symptoms of addiction include:

  • Marked increase in tolerance to the substance
  • Withdrawal symptoms
  • Difficulty cutting down or controlling use of substance
  • Increased time and energy spent on obtaining and using the substance
  • Compromised social and occupational roles (such as missing work due to a hangover)
  • Negative consequences associated with use of substances
  • Desire to cut down coupled with unsuccessful attempts

 

APA Reference
Amy Menna, Ph.D., LMHC, CAP. (2011). Suicide and the Military. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 23, 2014, from http://psychcentral.com/lib/suicide-and-the-military/0006115
Scientifically Reviewed
    Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 30 Jan 2013
    Published on PsychCentral.com. All rights reserved.