Trauma from U.S. Army combat is considered a primary driver of suicide among American soldiers, but a new University of Hawaii study suggests other factors are being overlooked.

Researchers on the Hilo campus analyzed suicide data of soldiers from 1819 to 2017. They found that for much of that time, solider suicides decreased during times of war. That trend reversed with the wars in Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq, according to the study published in The Journal of the American Medical Association.

Combat doesn’t seem to be a singular trigger, said Jeffrey Smith, the lead author and chair of the UH Hilo history department.

We need to probably start looking to other factors beyond the battlefield and active combat,” he said. “It appears to be much more multi-factorial and socioeconomic in its causal factors than something boiled down to just combat exposure.” 

Starting in 1843, the study found, the annual suicide rates among active-duty soldiers increased with a peak rate of 118.3 per 100,000 in 1883. From there, the rates went down in three successive waves corresponding with the conclusion of three wars: the Spanish-American War in 1898, World War I from 1914 to 1918 and World War II from 1939 to 1945.

World War II saw the lowest rate of soldier suicide: 5 people per 100,000, according to the study.

During the Cold War, between 1945 and 1991, the rate ticked up slightly to about 10 to 15 people per 100,000, the study said.

It increased again during the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq to 29.7 per 100,000 in 2012. From 2008 to now, the annual rate ranged from 20.2 to 29.7 per 100,000, the study found.

In 2018, 325 active-duty service members died by suicide, and 90 took their own lives in the first quarter of last year alone, according to the Department of Defense’s most recent report on suicide, with additional cases among reserve personnel. Military members who die by suicide are mostly white, male and under the age of 30, according to The Washington Post.

“Long-range data trends suggest that the US Army is not insulated from social, cultural, and economic shifts, as previously held notions presumed,” the study states.

Smith’s report did not assess whether soldiers killed themselves while deployed or when they came back home. Also not part of the review were murder-suicides like the recent fatal shooting at Pearl Harbor.

On Dec. 4, a 22-year-old Navy sailor from Texas opened fire on three Department of Defense workers – killing two of them – before shooting and killing himself, according to the military. A motive is not yet known, a Navy commander told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser.

“It does speak to the factor that it is a real phenomenon and crisis that we’re still struggling to get a handle on,” Smith said. “What we’re currently doing, while a lot, is obviously not stemming that tide.”

Smith plans to do further research comparing suicide rates and trends in civilian and veteran data.

If you or someone you know is experiencing suicidal thoughts or emotional distress, free and confidential support is available through the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. You can learn about suicide prevention efforts in Hawaii through the Suicide Prevention Resource Center

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