Women in the Army during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were more likely to attempt suicide than male soldiers, a new study has found.
But researchers found that men’s attempts are more likely to be fatal.
The patterns are also true in the civilian population, but it’s not well understood, according to the study’s lead author, Dr. Robert Ursano.
“Females may be more likely to come to the attention of health care providers at the time of a suicide attempt, so it may be that we capture more female suicide attempts than we do males,” said Ursano. He is chairman of the psychiatry department at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences, a federal institution in Bethesda, Maryland, that trains military doctors.
Ursano and his colleagues combined databases from the Army health care system about people who served between 2004 and 2009. The study was published Wednesday in the Journal of the American Medical Association-Psychiatry.
“It is the most comprehensive in the military and may be the most comprehensive in the nation,” he said.
From 2004 to 2009, a total of 9,650 soldiers attempted suicide, according to the Defense Department. Of those, 676 died.
The study found that enlisted soldiers were more likely to attempt suicide than officers and those attempts usually occurred within the first four years of service. Non-Hispanic Caucasians were at higher risk than minorities. It’s not clear why these particular groups appear to attempt suicide more often.
But suicide intervention research is sparse, said Kate Comtois, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the University of Washington.
She said this study is useful because it captures data for a large group of people, but she cautions that epidemiological studies like this may not show a full picture.
“They are based on the suicide attempts that are known to the medical system and coded as suicide attempts,” she said.
But she said there could be a lot of suicide attempts that are misclassified as accidents.
Comtois added that the data in the study wasn’t collected specifically to look at suicide, so it could be limited.
But Ursano hopes his study will drive more specific research into the nuances of what makes service members attempt to kill themselves.
That, he says, could lead to more effective prevention programs.
“We need programs that are specific by gender, specific by age and specific by the career time of one's time in the Army,” he said.