A new group of studies indicates that military recruits have a higher percentage of mental illness than the general public. It appears that many of those harboring suicidal thoughts and tendencies had mental disorders before ever entering the military. The studies indicate that these prior disorders, not the results of active duty, are more likely the cause of a soldier’s suicidal tendencies. The research revealed that almost one-half of the soldiers with these inclinations had already made a suicide attempt before joining the military. In fact, up to 80 percent of those with a documented mental illness had already had at least one mental disorder predating military enlistment.
One of the studies tracked almost one million soldiers from 2004 to 2009 and documented suicide rates. The study found that those who had served in either Iraq or Afghanistan had an increased suicide rate. However, the study also found that those who did not deploy also exhibited an increased risk. Researchers found that the percentage of mental illness was higher in those enlisting than the percentage of the same illnesses in the general population. There were statistically significant higher rates of panic disorder, attention deficit disorder, hyperactivity disorder, and PTSD.
One of the most common disorders found was a mental disorder known as intermittent explosive disorder. Intermittent explosive disorder is distinguished by episodes of uncontrolled aggressive impulses. These impulses often result in acts of assault or in the destruction of property. Military personnel may be up to six times as likely as civilians to be inflicted with this mental illness with the illness predating enlistment.
The lead author on one study, Dr. Matthew Nock, Harvard University psychologist, said that almost one-third of the suicide attempts made by recruits after joining the service may have been prevented by excluding those recruits with a history of mental illness. Screening of military recruits is done in order to reject those applicants with a pre-existing mental condition or previous suicide attempts. Therefore, it appears significant that almost half those soldiers attempting suicide have been found to have made at least one attempt even before joining.
In the United States, mental illness is the leading cause of death among soldiers. The suicide rates in 2009 were higher than in any year since the Vietnam War. Some experts are now suggesting that the pre-enlistment screening process be made more efficient.
The three studies showed that currently the rate of suicide among soldiers is comparable to that among civilians. Roughly 14 percent of soldiers had thoughts of suicide, five percent went as far as planning it, and two percent attempted suicide. Those with the most significant risks of suicidal ideology are those with a history of anxiety, depression, or PTSD.
The studies appear to indicate that rather than military service making soldiers mentally unwell, those already facing mental illness are more likely to be in the military. Researchers are not dismissing any significance of mental illness caused by active military duty and deployment, but there may be more to the elevated suicide risks with the background of illness predating enlistment.
By Dee Mueller