Soldiers, Suicide and TBI

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Soldier TBI FamilyThough we’ve seen greater effort to address traumatic brain injuries and suicide rates of military personnel in the past several years, TIME magazine recently reported that there were 32 suspected suicides by service members in July—a record high since the Army began releasing the data two years ago.

Additionally, back in January, Congress.org reported that the U.S. military has lost more troops to suicide than combat in Iraq and Afghanistan for at least two years in a row. Clearly, these statistics are alarming and are likely a part of the reason suicide and other mental health issues continue to be a growing concern for the military.

The statistics also highlight the need to make sure we are providing our military members with the proper evaluation and treatment when they return to the U.S., particularly when it comes to those who may have experienced some sort of brain injury and/or are experiencing various behavioral changes. Soldiers with brain injuries may have to deal with a number of cognitive, physical and psychological stresses that can come along with recovery—all in addition to readjusting to life back home.

It’s been mentioned it before, but it’s worth pointing out again that members of our military are at higher risk of traumatic brain injury (TBI) while in combat overseas.

As a result of these injuries, soldiers can experience many psychiatric and psychological issues that are related to suicidal thinking and behavior. Individuals with a brain injury can experience major changes in terms of how they think and feel;   become severely depressed, have anxiety or panic attacks, develop highly impulsive behavior, exhibit impaired judgment, and the inability to regulate behavior.

These symptoms can lead to feelings of hopelessness, which is a key factor in suicidal thoughts and behaviors. Another layer of complexity is that people with TBI who attempt suicide usually don’t plan the act like we see with people who don’t have brain injuries. This also increases the risk factors. We’ve called it the “perfect storm” in the past because this handful of elements can come together and have an extremely negative impact on a soldier’s well-being.

People who have experienced a brain injury and have been found to be at risk of suicide must be  treated and monitored throughout their recovery process—remember, the risk doesn’t go away immediately; it can actually increase in the first 15 years following the injury.

Because there are so many different components involved in treatment and in the subsequent years of the person’s return to independence, collaboration between the mental health and rehabilitation professionals, the person, and their family is an important part of maintaining safety during the healing process. After all, it is critical that we do our best to make sure our soldiers, who put themselves in harm’s way for the safety of our country, are kept safe from harm once they’re home.

About Rolf Gainer Ph.D.

Dr. Rolf Gainer is the founder of the Neurologic Rehabilitation Institute at Brookhaven Hospital in Tulsa, Oklahoma as well as the Neurological Rehabilitation Institute of Ontario, in Toronto, Canada. Dr. Gainer is a psychologist with more than twenty-five years of experience in the treatment and rehabilitation of individuals with brain injuries and a dual diagnosis. Dr. Gainer has designed and operated innovative rehabilitation programs in the United States and Canada for individuals who have been regarded as difficult to serve. He is currently involved in conducting two outcome studies related to the long-term issues faced by individuals with brain injuries and a dual diagnosis. He has presented papers throughout the United States and Canada in many professional conferences and educational forums.

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