With the alarming rise in suicides among current and former military personnel, researchers are trying to tease apart risk factors, including traumatic experiences before and during military service.
It is an issue that is not likely to go away anytime soon.
“We are going to continue to have problems with suicide and mental health conditions for the foreseeable future,” said clinical psychologist Dr. Craig Bryan, associate director of the National Center for Veterans Studies at the University of Utah.
“In a year or two, when we pull out of Afghanistan, or mostly do so, I really worry our society will sort of wash their hands of it and say, ‘that’s done with.’ But we will have service members returning who continue to struggle with these issues.”
According to a new study, military personnel experience increased risk of suicidal thoughts or actions if they were the victims of physical or violent sexual assault as adults.
In contrast, undergraduate students display an increased risk of suicidal thoughts or actions if they were the victims of unwanted sexual experiences as children or adults.
The study findings by Bryan and colleagues are published in the journal Suicide and Life-Threatening Behavior.
Experts say that while studies have shown that victims of sexual or physical assault are at increased risk of health problems—including suicide—the majority of that work has focused on those who were sexually assaulted as children. But ittle is known about the connections in a military context.
Consequently, researchers looked at the experiences of two groups of adults—active military personnel and young people not in active military service—and then assessed the potential impact of various kinds of interpersonal violence on suicide risk in each.
“Suicide is a growing concern in the military, as is the issue of interpersonal assault,” said Bryan.
“Understanding how different kinds of assaults can increase risk for suicidal thoughts and behaviors in military personnel is a major step toward better care for those men and women in service to our country.”
In the study, researchers investigated potential links between various types of physical and sexual assault and suicidal thoughts and actions.
Data was collected from two sample groups—273 active duty U.S. Air Force personnel and 309 undergraduate college students—via surveys completed anonymously by the participants.
A process to assure anonymity for both groups was considered important, primarily to eliminate concerns about confidentiality or stigma in the military group.
All participants were surveyed on five different measures: currently entertaining ideas of suicide; history of previous suicide attempts; severity of depression or anxiety; sense of belonging or connectedness; and history of sexual or physical assaults.
Results showed that different types of assault are associated with suicidal actions or behaviors in military personnel from those among undergraduate students. The results persist even while controlling for potentially confounding factors like age, gender, relationship status and emotional distress.
For those in the military, being a victim of rape, robbery or violent physical assault as an adult showed a stronger relationship to actual suicide attempts than other types of assault, and physical abuse and battering as an adult were more closely linked to simply thinking about suicide.
While for the students, unwanted sexual experiences as an adult or childhood abuse were more strongly connected with both suicide attempts and ideation, than were other types of violence.
Researchers say that age and marital status may account in part for the difference.
The average age of those in the military group was nearly 26, and the students’ was just under 20. Further, 57 percent of the military participants were married, while 61 percent of the students were single and never married.
For the military population, being somewhat older and more likely to be married, violent assaults, physical abuse and battering may be more relevant than for the students, for whom sexual abuse is more prevalent in general.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the risk of suicidal thoughts and actions rises as the number of assaults experienced increases. This finding held true with both groups.
Repeated victimization from violent assaults is especially pernicious, the authors note.
“Taken together, these data are important because they point practitioners to specific life experiences that can help identify and intervene for those at risk of suicide before the unthinkable happens,” Bryan said.
An important direction for future research will be to uncover if some combinations of assaults are more troubling than others, and in which populations.
Source: University of Utah