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The suicide rate has increased significantly among US Army soldiers over the past decade. Here we report the first results from a large psychological autopsy study using two control groups designed to reveal risk factors for suicide death among soldiers beyond known sociodemographic factors and the presence of suicide ideation.
Informants were next-of-kin and Army supervisors for: 135 suicide cases, 137 control soldiers propensity-score-matched on known sociodemographic risk factors for suicide and Army history variables, and 118 control soldiers who reported suicide ideation in the past year.
Results revealed that most (79.3%) soldiers who died by suicide have a prior mental disorder; mental disorders in the prior 30-days were especially strong risk factors for suicide death. Approximately half of suicide decedents tell someone that they are considering suicide. Virtually all of the risk factors identified in this study differed between suicide cases and propensity-score-matched controls, but did not significantly differ between suicide cases and suicide ideators. The most striking difference between suicides and ideators was the presence in the former of an internalizing disorder (especially depression) and multi-morbidity (i.e. 3+ disorders) in the past 30 days.
Most soldiers who die by suicide have identifiable mental disorders shortly before their death and tell others about their suicidal thinking, suggesting that there are opportunities for prevention and intervention. However, few risk factors distinguish between suicide ideators and decedents, pointing to an important direction for future research.
The stress sensitization theory hypothesizes that individuals exposed to childhood adversity will be more vulnerable to mental disorders from proximal stressors. We aimed to test this theory with respect to risk of 30-day major depressive episode (MDE) and generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) among new US Army soldiers.
The sample consisted of 30 436 new soldier recruits in the Army Study to Assess Risk and Resilience (Army STARRS). Generalized linear models were constructed, and additive interactions between childhood maltreatment profiles and level of 12-month stressful experiences on the risk of 30-day MDE and GAD were analyzed.
Stress sensitization was observed in models of past 30-day MDE (χ28 = 17.6, p = 0.025) and GAD (χ28 = 26.8, p = 0.001). This sensitization only occurred at high (3+) levels of reported 12-month stressful experiences. In pairwise comparisons for the risk of 30-day MDE, the risk difference between 3+ stressful experiences and no stressful experiences was significantly greater for all maltreatment profiles relative to No Maltreatment. Similar results were found with the risk for 30-day GAD with the exception of the risk difference for Episodic Emotional and Sexual Abuse, which did not differ statistically from No Maltreatment.
New soldiers are at an increased risk of 30-day MDE or GAD following recent stressful experiences if they were exposed to childhood maltreatment. Particularly in the military with an abundance of unique stressors, attempts to identify this population and improve stress management may be useful in the effort to reduce the risk of mental disorders.
The U.S. Army uses universal preventives interventions for several negative outcomes (e.g. suicide, violence, sexual assault) with especially high risks in the early years of service. More intensive interventions exist, but would be cost-effective only if targeted at high-risk soldiers. We report results of efforts to develop models for such targeting from self-report surveys administered at the beginning of Army service.
21 832 new soldiers completed a self-administered questionnaire (SAQ) in 2011–2012 and consented to link administrative data to SAQ responses. Penalized regression models were developed for 12 administratively-recorded outcomes occurring by December 2013: suicide attempt, mental hospitalization, positive drug test, traumatic brain injury (TBI), other severe injury, several types of violence perpetration and victimization, demotion, and attrition.
The best-performing models were for TBI (AUC = 0.80), major physical violence perpetration (AUC = 0.78), sexual assault perpetration (AUC = 0.78), and suicide attempt (AUC = 0.74). Although predicted risk scores were significantly correlated across outcomes, prediction was not improved by including risk scores for other outcomes in models. Of particular note: 40.5% of suicide attempts occurred among the 10% of new soldiers with highest predicted risk, 57.2% of male sexual assault perpetrations among the 15% with highest predicted risk, and 35.5% of female sexual assault victimizations among the 10% with highest predicted risk.
Data collected at the beginning of service in self-report surveys could be used to develop risk models that define small proportions of new soldiers accounting for high proportions of negative outcomes over the first few years of service.
Although interventions exist to reduce violent crime, optimal implementation requires accurate targeting. We report the results of an attempt to develop an actuarial model using machine learning methods to predict future violent crimes among US Army soldiers.
A consolidated administrative database for all 975 057 soldiers in the US Army in 2004–2009 was created in the Army Study to Assess Risk and Resilience in Servicemembers (Army STARRS). Of these soldiers, 5771 committed a first founded major physical violent crime (murder-manslaughter, kidnapping, aggravated arson, aggravated assault, robbery) over that time period. Temporally prior administrative records measuring socio-demographic, Army career, criminal justice, medical/pharmacy, and contextual variables were used to build an actuarial model for these crimes separately among men and women using machine learning methods (cross-validated stepwise regression, random forests, penalized regressions). The model was then validated in an independent 2011–2013 sample.
Key predictors were indicators of disadvantaged social/socioeconomic status, early career stage, prior crime, and mental disorder treatment. Area under the receiver-operating characteristic curve was 0.80–0.82 in 2004–2009 and 0.77 in the 2011–2013 validation sample. Of all administratively recorded crimes, 36.2–33.1% (male-female) were committed by the 5% of soldiers having the highest predicted risk in 2004–2009 and an even higher proportion (50.5%) in the 2011–2013 validation sample.
Although these results suggest that the models could be used to target soldiers at high risk of violent crime perpetration for preventive interventions, final implementation decisions would require further validation and weighing of predicted effectiveness against intervention costs and competing risks.
Civilian suicide rates vary by occupation in ways related to occupational stress exposure. Comparable military research finds suicide rates elevated in combat arms occupations. However, no research has evaluated variation in this pattern by deployment history, the indicator of occupation stress widely considered responsible for the recent rise in the military suicide rate.
The joint associations of Army occupation and deployment history in predicting suicides were analysed in an administrative dataset for the 729 337 male enlisted Regular Army soldiers in the US Army between 2004 and 2009.
There were 496 suicides over the study period (22.4/100 000 person-years). Only two occupational categories, both in combat arms, had significantly elevated suicide rates: infantrymen (37.2/100 000 person-years) and combat engineers (38.2/100 000 person-years). However, the suicide rates in these two categories were significantly lower when currently deployed (30.6/100 000 person-years) than never deployed or previously deployed (41.2–39.1/100 000 person-years), whereas the suicide rate of other soldiers was significantly higher when currently deployed and previously deployed (20.2–22.4/100 000 person-years) than never deployed (14.5/100 000 person-years), resulting in the adjusted suicide rate of infantrymen and combat engineers being most elevated when never deployed [odds ratio (OR) 2.9, 95% confidence interval (CI) 2.1–4.1], less so when previously deployed (OR 1.6, 95% CI 1.1–2.1), and not at all when currently deployed (OR 1.2, 95% CI 0.8–1.8). Adjustment for a differential ‘healthy warrior effect’ cannot explain this variation in the relative suicide rates of never-deployed infantrymen and combat engineers by deployment status.
Efforts are needed to elucidate the causal mechanisms underlying this interaction to guide preventive interventions for soldiers at high suicide risk.
The Army Study to Assess Risk and Resilience in Servicemembers (Army STARRS) has found that the proportional elevation in the US Army enlisted soldier suicide rate during deployment (compared with the never-deployed or previously deployed) is significantly higher among women than men, raising the possibility of gender differences in the adverse psychological effects of deployment.
Person-month survival models based on a consolidated administrative database for active duty enlisted Regular Army soldiers in 2004–2009 (n = 975 057) were used to characterize the gender × deployment interaction predicting suicide. Four explanatory hypotheses were explored involving the proportion of females in each soldier's occupation, the proportion of same-gender soldiers in each soldier's unit, whether the soldier reported sexual assault victimization in the previous 12 months, and the soldier's pre-deployment history of treated mental/behavioral disorders.
The suicide rate of currently deployed women (14.0/100 000 person-years) was 3.1–3.5 times the rates of other (i.e. never-deployed/previously deployed) women. The suicide rate of currently deployed men (22.6/100 000 person-years) was 0.9–1.2 times the rates of other men. The adjusted (for time trends, sociodemographics, and Army career variables) female:male odds ratio comparing the suicide rates of currently deployed v. other women v. men was 2.8 (95% confidence interval 1.1–6.8), became 2.4 after excluding soldiers with Direct Combat Arms occupations, and remained elevated (in the range 1.9–2.8) after adjusting for the hypothesized explanatory variables.
These results are valuable in excluding otherwise plausible hypotheses for the elevated suicide rate of deployed women and point to the importance of expanding future research on the psychological challenges of deployment for women.
The US Army suicide rate has increased sharply in recent years. Identifying significant predictors of Army suicides in Army and Department of Defense (DoD) administrative records might help focus prevention efforts and guide intervention content. Previous studies of administrative data, although documenting significant predictors, were based on limited samples and models. A career history perspective is used here to develop more textured models.
The analysis was carried out as part of the Historical Administrative Data Study (HADS) of the Army Study to Assess Risk and Resilience in Servicemembers (Army STARRS). De-identified data were combined across numerous Army and DoD administrative data systems for all Regular Army soldiers on active duty in 2004–2009. Multivariate associations of sociodemographics and Army career variables with suicide were examined in subgroups defined by time in service, rank and deployment history.
Several novel results were found that could have intervention implications. The most notable of these were significantly elevated suicide rates (69.6–80.0 suicides per 100 000 person-years compared with 18.5 suicides per 100 000 person-years in the total Army) among enlisted soldiers deployed either during their first year of service or with less than expected (based on time in service) junior enlisted rank; a substantially greater rise in suicide among women than men during deployment; and a protective effect of marriage against suicide only during deployment.
A career history approach produces several actionable insights missed in less textured analyses of administrative data predictors. Expansion of analyses to a richer set of predictors might help refine understanding of intervention implications.