“As historical trends appear to show decreases in wartime suicide rates and as suicide is multifactorial, the findings of this study suggest that factors away from the battlefield may be associated with the change in suicide rates during active combat and among personnel in the U.S. Army,” wrote Jeffrey Allen Smith, Ph.D., of the University of Hawaii and colleagues.
Smith and colleagues analyzed data from a variety of government sources and published articles on suicide among active-duty personnel in the U.S. Army from 1840 to 2018. Starting in 1843, the overall trend in annual suicide rates among active-duty service members increased, with a peak rate of 118.3 per 100,000 in 1883. But after that, Smith and colleagues found that the rate of suicide decreased in three successive waves, corresponding to the end of the Spanish American War (1898), World War I (1914-1918), and World War II (1939-1945). The historically lowest suicide rate of 5 per 100,000 service members was recorded in 1944 and 1945.
In 1975, corresponding to the end of the Vietnam War, the suicide rate spiked to 18 per 100,000 service members. In 2012, during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the suicide rate reached a peak at 29.7 per 100,000 service members. From 2008 to the present, the annual rate has not dropped below 20.2 per 100,000 service members.
The researchers suggested that some of the factors impacting the increased suicide rates could be the changes in the population comprising the U.S. Army over time and the length of the wars. They noted that the increased rates of suicide took place during the two longest wars in U.S. Army history: the wars in Vietnam and Afghanistan. “[T]hus, the question of how the length of wars is associated with suicide rates should be a topic for future research,” Smith and colleagues wrote.
In an editorial accompanying the study, David S. Jones, M.D., Ph.D., of Harvard Medical School noted that incorporating historical data can help improve theories about the cause of suicide among service members. “Even if the models that emerge from detailed historical analyses of military suicide are not used to guide campaigns against suicide today, the research will still provide valuable insight into the human conditions of military service during times of war and peace,” he wrote.
For related information, see the Psychiatric News article “With Changing Insights, Military Psychiatry Evolved Over Time.”