As of June 8, 2012, there have been 154 military suicides in 155 days. That’s 18% above the already astronomic rate of 2011 or 154 as compared to 130. What’s causing the increased rate of suicide? And, what can be done?
The war has dragged on beyond what was thought of as a short-term affair. Additionally, troops are being sent back for multiple combat tours. Many of the soldiers in the war are National Guard and reservists, individuals who left behind their civilian lives, jobs and families. There are several studies which point to an increased rate of PTSD among these troops. The rate of PTSD in the troops is alarming and the Department of Defense has not been able to offer adequate identification of the disorder or effective interventions. As I noted in a previous blog, the culture of the military does not easily support disclosure of psychological issues which leaves the soldier to suffer inner turmoil and distress by themselves in many cases. Among the symptoms of PTSD is a high level of arousal and vigilance. Coupled with ease of access to firearms a soldier or veteran with an untenable level of psychological distress could consider suicide as a way to end their internal conflict and stop the psychological pain.
We also have the possibility of undiagnosed brain injury which coupled with PTSD is “the perfect storm” for the development of suicidal thinking and for allowing the impulsive behaviors associated with certain types of brain injury to surface, leading to the suicidal act. While detection of brain injury in our troops is improving, there are many soldiers who have experienced multiple “mild” brain injuries or concussions from exposure to IED’s who remain undiagnosed.
Dr. Lee Goldstein of Boston University’s School of Medicine recently released a paper in which the organic, structural problems in the brain was related to blast exposure. Dr. Goldstein’s findings which were the subject of a New York Times article, “Brain Ailments in Veterans Linked to Those in Athletes (Brain Disease is Found in Veterans Exposed to Bombs. nytimes.com, May 16, 2012 http://www.nytimes.com/2012/05/17/us/brain-disease-is-found-in-veterans-exposed-to-bombs). Dr. Goldstein’s study pointed out the possibility that combat veterans with invisible brain injuries caused by exposure to explosions are at risk for developing long-term neurological disease, possibly causing Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy or C.T.E. which has been found in the brains of the NFL football players who committed suicide, like Dave Duerson or Junior Seau. Dr. Bennett Omalu, the Chief Medical Examiner for San Joaquin County, California is preparing to release a study of eight veterans with C.T.E. who received a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder before they died.While these studies are preliminary they point to a connection which requires our attention.
The suicide rate among soldiers is alarming and must be addressed. There are mental health and brain injury problems which must be appropriately treated in our returning troops. And, once they have gone back home our committment to their health must remain in place. The problems with suicide, PTSD and brain injury may remain below the surface for years and erupt with deadly consequences.