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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 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.
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