Head Injuries May Hike Military Suicides

Study urges quality care for potentially suicidal military personnel

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

(RxWiki News) Trying to remain mentally well is one of the most serious challenges facing military servicemen and women who are on the battlefront and veterans at home.

A new study has found that those suffering from depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, and who also endured several traumatic brain injuries while on duty, were significantly more likely to consider suicide than those with no traumatic assaults to the brain.

“The current study highlights the importance of screening for depression and suicidal [thoughts] in our military personnel,” said Nancy Chiaravalloti, PhD, a Kessler Foundation Research Center (KFRC) traumatic brain injury specialist who was not involved in this study.

"Get treated for any suicidal thoughts."

The study’s main author, Craig Bryan, PhD, a clinical psychologist at the University of Utah’s National Center for Veterans Studies, analyzed health records of 161 military personnel treated at a military hospital in Iraq.

They had been physically examined and interviewed by medical staff. Using standardized medical forms designed to measure depression, post-traumatic stress, suicidal thoughts and behaviors, the 161 service people also self-reported about their mental state.

Based on his review of participants' responses, details of doctor exams and the interviews, Dr. Bryan concluded that those patients in the study who had no traumatic brain injuries did not consider suicide. In contrast, 6.9 percent of those who suffered one brain injury did consider suicide and 21.7 percent of those with more than one traumatic brain injury considered suicide.

Behind dying on the battlefield, suicide is the second highest cause of death among military personnel, Dr. Bryan wrote.

Rates of suicide have increased steadily since the United States began engaging in wars in Afghanistan and Iraq; the rates are higher among Army personnel than personnel in other branches of the military, Dr. Bryan wrote.

Up to 20 percent of military personnel assigned to those regions are estimated to suffer from traumatic brain injury, with most of those problems diagnosed as mild, rather than moderate to severe, Dr. Bryan wrote.

In addition to occurring during combat, such injuries also can happen during training, wrote Dr. Bryan, whose work aims to address ways of curbing such injuries and of aggressively treating the injured so that they can achieve optimum mental health. His work also explores how depression and other psychological and emotional problems potentially affect suicidal thoughts and behavior of military personnel.

Dr. Chiaravalloti of KFRC, which runs a rehabilitation hospital in Saddle Brook, New Jersey, said the study is somewhat limited by the fact that its participants self-reported aspects of their mental health.

Still, she agreed with Keith Black, MD, a neurosurgeon at Cedars-Sinai in Los Angeles, that the study spotlights crucial needs to ensure that active duty personnel and recent veterans quickly get necessary care.

“The study,” added Dr. Black, who also was not involved in this research, “supports a growing number of reports showing similar correlations and highlights the need for research for better approaches for brain protection.”

Dr. Bryan has gotten federal research grants from several branches of the military. He also has been paid to train US Defense Department employees and to deliver speeches to private organizations involved with suicide prevention and research.

The study was published in May in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
May 14, 2013
Last Updated:
August 13, 2013