Army Psychologist's Death Spurs New Findings on Vets' Suicide Risk

The suicide of an Army psychologist has sparked a new study that is the first to clearly define factors that contribute to suicide risk among military personnel and veterans who have deployed.

Dr. Peter Linnerooth was a captain in the Army from 2003 to 2008. Deployed to Iraq, he was awarded the Bronze Star for exemplary service tending to the mental health of troops. But after his return, Linnerooth was beset by depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, and killed himself in 2013.

“His death had a profound effect on the military psychology community because we lost one of our own to this tragedy,” said Dr. Craig Bryan, director of the National Center for Veterans Studies at the University of Utah and lead author of the paper.

The study, published in the journal Suicide and Life-Threatening Behavior, finds that that exposure to killing and death while deployed is connected to suicide risk. Previous studies that looked solely at the relationship between deployment and suicide risk without assessing for exposure to killing and death have shown inconsistent results.

“Many people assume that deployment equals exposure to specific forms of combat trauma, but the two are not equivalent,” Bryan said.

“By looking specifically at exposure to death while deployed, it became clear that deployment itself does not increase risk for suicide because not all who are deployed are exposed to death and atrocity.”

Researchers believe the mixed findings of earlier studies stem from the variability in participant group sizes, where small differences in outcomes could appear very different. The new investigation analyzed data from 22 studies, totaling 2.7 million participants from multiple eras and across nations, making it the most comprehensive evaluation to be conducted.

By reviewing these studies in aggregate, the researchers found much more consistency across data than the individual findings suggested.

Experts report that suicide rates have risen among military personnel during the past decade, and it is now the second-leading cause of death. Researchers found a 43 percent increased suicide risk when people were exposed to killing and atrocity compared to just 25 percent when looking at deployment in general.

“Next, we want to understand why exposure to killing and death leads to an increased suicide risk so we can develop better ways to support military personnel and veterans,” Bryan said.

The research team’s preliminary results suggest that seeing death and killing contributes to feelings of guilt, shame, regret, and negative self-perceptions.

Earlier research by Bryan indicates that self-forgiveness protects against suicide attempts. Now, he plans to pursue this topic further so veterans and military personnel will have better support in dealing with trauma and transitioning to civilian life.

This study was very personal for Bryan, whose interest with the topic was solidified by Linnerooth’s death. When he was deployed to Iraq in 2009 as an Air Force psychologist, Bryan was convinced the deployments contributed to suicide risk, but his research didn’t confirm this theory.

Following the loss of Linnerooth, Bryan had a conversation with a fellow Army psychologist who told him that although he respected Bryan’s research, he would never believe that Linnerooth’s death wasn’t connected to the things he saw while deployed to Iraq. That was when Linnerooth’s life took a turn for the worse.

“That conversation haunted me for two years,” Bryan said. “Then I realized that for more than a decade, researchers, including myself, have been asking the wrong question.”

As he gathered all the studies he could find on the topic, the pattern began to emerge, and he realized that the mistake had been the assumption that deployment equaled exposure to killing and death.

“In many ways, this paper was driven by the motivation to provide greater clarity to Peter’s family and friends, as well as to the military psychology community as a whole,” Bryan said.

Source: University of Utah/EurekAlert!