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Kevlar for the Mind: Hopeful research for stopping suicides

March 2, 2015 (Photo Credit: Thinkstock/Staff)

Suicide among active-duty troops and veterans has plagued psychological researchers for the past decade.

Early in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, rates of suicidal thoughts, attempts and completions increased by more than 50 percent. Countless theories have been put forth regarding the reasons behind the increase and millions of research dollars have been funneled into the collective hands of university, military, Veterans Affairs and private researchers. Unfortunately, a definitive explanation for the increase remains elusive.

More troublesome is that fact that there is little consensus on which interventions are most effective for preventing suicide. However, a recent groundbreaking study has brought us closer to an answer.

Researchers from the University of Memphis, University of Utah, University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio, and Fort Carson, Colorado, found that a particular form of short-term cognitive-behavioral therapy reduced suicide attempts in active-duty personnel by 60 percent. The results were published online Feb. 13 by the American Journal of Psychiatry.

Over the course of two years, 152 soldiers with past suicide attempts or suicidal thoughts with the intent to die were randomly assigned to one of two groups. The first group, referred to as the treatment-as-usual group, received the typical treatment services from military and civilian mental health clinicians. This generally consisted of individual and group therapy, substance abuse counseling, and antidepressant and sleep medications.

The second group received the same typical treatment services as the first, but also received 12 weekly sessions of the suicide-focused psychotherapy. These sessions focused on development of a crisis response plan, management of intense emotions, and challenging thoughts that contribute to suicidal thinking.

At the end of the study, 31 suicide attempts were made by 26 soldiers across both groups. Eighteen soldiers in treatment as usual made at least one suicide attempt whereas only eight attempted suicide from the brief therapy group.

Those results are significant for several reasons. First, to date, this is the largest reduction in suicide-attempt risk seen in the military population.

Second, soldiers involved in the brief therapy were less likely to be medically retired from service. This can translate into significant cost savings for the military.

And lastly, long-term, expensive and riskier treatment approaches may not be warranted given the positive results of this shorter and more focused intervention.

The authors do note, however, that the same claims may not be valid for veterans, as this group has unique mental health needs and was not part of the study.

Bret A. Moore, Psy.D., is a board-certified clinical psychologist who served two tours in Iraq. Email him at kevlarforthemind@militarytimes.com. This column is for informational purposes only and is not intended to convey specific psychological or medical guidance.

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