A broad study of suicide attempts by Army soldiers from 2004 to 2009 finds that new enlistees, women and troops diagnosed with mental health disorders are at higher risk for trying to take their lives, according to a study published Wednesday in JAMA Psychiatry.

Researchers working on a massive cohort study of troops called the Army Study to Assess Risk and Resilience in Servicemembers, or Army STARRS, reviewed Defense Department suicide records to explore the circumstances under which soldiers attempted suicide.

Dr. Robert Ursano, lead author and chairman of the psychiatry department at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences, said that while suicide events are widely studied, suicide attempts are not — and furthering an understanding of who tries to commit suicide could help prevent deaths.

"Once [soldiers] have completed suicide, there's nothing you can do about it. They are dead," Ursano said. "So you try to work backward — to understand those who have tried, then those who have completed a plan, and those who have thought about it."

According to the data, 99 percent of suicide attempts from 2004 to 2009 were made by enlisted personnel, who make up about 84 percent of the force. The research also found that female soldiers, who make up about 14 percent of the Army, were twice as likely as their male counterparts to attempt suicide.

The research also found that:

  • Enlisted soldiers and officers were more at risk for attempting suicide if they entered service at age 25 or older.
  • Risk was particularly elevated during the first tour of duty, notably in the first few months of service.
  • Personnel who received a mental health diagnosis were at risk for attempting suicide within a month of getting the news.
  • Non-Hispanic Caucasians were at higher risk than minorities.

The data showed that during the time frame studied, the Army had the highest sustained increase in suicide rates relative to the other services, and suicide attempt rates rose sharply as well.

From 2004 to 2009, a total of 9,650 soldiers attempted suicide, according to Defense Department Suicide Event Reports. Over that period, 676 soldiers died by suicide.

Previous studies indicate that those who attempt suicide are 40 times more likely to die by suicide than those who have never tried.

While the review provides a perspective on suicide attempts and events during a period of high operational tempo, Ursano said its findings still could be useful for future operations and peacetime service regardless of whether a service member is in the Army, Navy, Air Force or Marine Corps, and may shed light on civilian suicides as well.

"The more we know about the who and when, the more we can have precision medicines and individualized treatments for those at-risk," he said.

Patricia Kime is a senior writer covering military and veterans health care, medicine and personnel issues.

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