— -- Suicide remains a substantial problem among veterans with rising rates in the past decade and higher rates than the general population, according to researchers.
A new study, published today in the Journal of the American Medical Association Psychiatry, looks at a large group of veterans and active service members to help determine timing and other factors that put them at higher risk and ways to help combat the problem.
"Deployment context is important in identifying SA [suicide attempt] risk among Army-enlisted soldiers," the authors wrote in the study. "A life/career history perspective can assist in identifying high-risk segments of a population based on factors such as timing, environmental context and individual characteristics."
Researchers from several institutions including the Uniformed Services University of Health Sciences, Harvard Medical School, and the University of California-San Diego examined data from 163,178 enlisted soldiers. Of those, 9,650 had attempted suicide during the study period between 2004 to 2009.
The authors found some surprising results including the fact that enlisted soldiers, who had never been deployed, accounted for 61.1 percent of the enlisted soldiers who attempted suicide.
Among these soldiers, the risk for suicide attempt was highest when they reached their second month of service. Those who were deployed were at highest risk six months into deployment. For those who had previously deployed and returned home, five months after getting back home was their highest risk time.
The most likely soldiers to attempt suicide were women, who had received a mental health diagnosis in the past month. Those who screen positive for depression or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), were also at high risk for a suicide attempt if they had been deployed previously.
Dr. David Rudd, a clinical psychologist focused on veteran issues and the President of the University of Memphis, told ABC News said the findings showed how soldiers often show signs of distress early into their service.
"Individuals who have difficulty have it early in their service," said Rudd. "It speaks to significant vulnerability when they come into service."
Rudd said the fact that suicides rates are at high levels even in people who have not seen combat suggests that officials should focus on improving screening measures before service to identify people unable to cope with the stressors of a military job.
"It raises a tougher question," Rudd said. "Are they really suited for military experience?"
"We need better screening, the question is how do you do it effectively for numbers that large. Clearly self report screening is not doing that effectively."