A new study examining the US Army’s documented rates of suicide over the previous two centuries was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) on December 13 and found that while the rate among active-duty soldiers has grown “substantially since 2004,” combat is not to blame.
“There appears to be a paradigm shift that happens with the so-called ‘endless wars’ — Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan,” study co-author and history professor Jeffrey Allen Smith of the University of Hawaii-Hilo told Stars and Stripes earlier this week.
The study, which relied on US Army suicide data from the US Department of Defense spanning the time from 1819 to 2017, pushed back against a common presumption about military operations influencing self-harm. Researchers noted that the US Army was selected due to the fact that it is the largest service branch, with a combined strength between the Regular Army, Army National Guard and Reserves of just over 1 million people.
“From a historical standpoint, rates did not increase during wartime, which is part of why we’re starting to try to look at these increases from a multifactorial perspective,” Smith told the military outlet.
The data shows that the suicide rate began to increase throughout the US Army in 1843 and peaked at 118.3 per 100,000 active-duty service members in 1883. Rates then dropped in waves during the Spanish-American War (1898), World War I (1914-1918) and World War II (1939-1945) - which had the lowest suicide rate, at 5 per 100,000 active duty Army members.
From then until 1991, the end of the Cold War, rates “generally stabilized” somewhere between 10 to 15 per 100,000 active-duty Army members.
However, the suicide rate shot up to 29.7 per 100,000 activy-duty Army members in 2012 following the US’ invasions of Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003. Researchers found that since 2008, the annual suicide rate has remained between 20.2 and 29.7 per 100,000 active-duty Army members.
“Long-range data trends suggest that the US Army is not insulated from social, cultural, and economic shifts, as previously held notions presumed,” researchers contended in their JAMA release.
Smith expounded on this assertion from the study and told Stars and Stripes that experts are digging deeper into the available data and have begun “looking at causal factors that would be beyond the battlefield,” such as “socio-economic factors and psychological factors.”
The professor and researcher noted that his new research looks to “parse out” these causes that are “indicative of a particular time and place” for US society as a whole.