06 Aug 2013

Military Suicides and Deployment

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In the car I heard this short (less than 4 minutes) clip on a new study that supposedly debunks the popular idea that military deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan are behind the increase in suicides among members of the military. The NPR guy summarizing the study said, “Long deployments did not increase the risk of suicide,” and then they quoted one of the authors (I think) who said, “The strongest predictor is mental health” including depression and alcoholism.

I am really hoping this study didn’t do what I fear it might have, namely, run a huge regression analysis with “Length of deployment” as one of the independent variables and “alcoholism” and “depression” as other ones.

If you don’t see why that would be a really dubious approach, imagine if I ran a regression and then announced, “A lot of people think clinical depression is a good predictor of suicide. But nope, once you control for people holding a noose, a gun, or sleeping pills, clinical depression actually doesn’t have much explanatory power at all.”

(I am truly not trying to make light of an awful topic, but I thought I needed to be crystal clear on what I fear might be going on with this study.)

22 Responses to “Military Suicides and Deployment”

  1. Joseph Fetz says:

    You’re correct, Bob. It is simply a case of trying to identify the symptom as the disease. Trust me.

  2. Matt M. (Dude Where's My Freedom) says:

    The powers that be want us to believe that long deployments result in the alarmingly high military suicide rate, because the alternative – that being in the military AT ALL (regardless of whether you deploy or for how long) makes you more likely to commit suicide leaves the DoD with some serious ‘splanin to do…

    • Joseph Fetz says:

      Matt M.,

      The system of military training is quite effective at making a person goal-oriented for the military’s aims, it is usually not until one has finally transferred to their permanent duty station, or more specifically, has gone on a deployment, that the effects of such “training” have worn off and the subject begins to realize the gravity of the situation.

      Now I do agree with you that being in the military at all might have some implications here, but one must understand that the military often recruits from those that are downtrodden and already susceptible to such feelings. But I will tell you that without a doubt, even the most well-adjusted person, if put into a scenario such as a deployment, will lose part of his sanity and control. It’s that stressful and intense.

      Believe me, I understand what you’re saying, but you’re making a normative statement about the military itself, without regard to the actual conditions or reality. Remember, the people that joined did so voluntarily, thus there is no reason to think that their moral conflict has *anything* to do with simply being in the military. No, they wanted to be *in* the military. Their moral qualms only come later when they’ve been pushed to the limits of their humanity, and this is exactly what a deployment provides.

      What Bob is pointing out is that the study is saying that things like “depression” and “substance abuse” are the problem, when in my experience, these were often only the results thereof. Military life is pretty easy and morally ambiguous to most people during their training pipeline, it doesn’t get interesting or true until one deploys.

      I guess what I am trying to say is that I agree with your disfavor of having a military, and in the philosophical sense we can make a statement like, “it is the fact that they are in the military at all is the root of the problem”. However, having seen and experienced it myself, I can say that it is most assuredly deployments that are the largest factor on suicide rates, and that this study is simply trying to mask that fact.

      After all, what is the purpose of a military that doesn’t deploy?

      • Matt M. (Dude Where's My Freedom) says:


        I’m not sure what your background is. A little bit about mine, I was in the Navy for nine years and never “deployed,” that is to say, I never left the country. The program I was in had me working directly with Navy reservists, so about half the time, I wasn’t even on a proper Navy base.

        I worked with a lot of reservists who were about to deploy, and a lot of reservists who just got back. Although I never experienced it personally, I feel like I know about as much as someone can possibly know who HASN’T experienced it personally from talking with and working with these guys over the years.

        Personally, I never noticed a connection between the deployments and depression/alcoholism/other risk factors (fortunately, nobody I knew committed suicide). It’s possible my reservists didn’t deploy into as crappy of situations as the Army and Marines often do.

        Yes, everyone joins voluntarily, but you also change and become a different person from when you were 18. Lord knows I did. Despite my conversion to “radical libertarianism” the choice to separate was incredibly hard. This was all I ever knew. Technically I was still there voluntarily, but I didn’t really want to be. Not sure if that makes any sense. If you were in, and got out, you probably understand what I’m talking about here?

        “After all, what is the purpose of a military that doesn’t deploy?”

        Gee, I dunno, national defense, perhaps? 😉

        • Joseph Fetz says:

          So you were a TAR? That’s probably the best duty the Navy provides, but I think that they got rid of it shortly before I got out.

          On my background (please excuse the grammar and misspellings):


          All I was really saying above is that most people who join are pretty gung ho and happy during the earlier part of their service (the brainwashing helps), that it is usually once they deploy that they tend to exhibit signs of stress and depression (which often leads to self-medicating, but can lead to suicide). This has to do with both the stresses and pressures encountered during a deployment, as well as what they might have seen or heard during it. Essentially, the reality of the situation sets in. Keep in mind, I am talking about wartime deployments, not the liberty cruise deployments that took place during peacetime (which were very fun from what I’ve been told).

          Regarding my last statement, I understand your sentiment. However, when I use the term “military” I am assuming a state, because I don’t believe a military could exist without the state (you’d instead have militias or PDAs). So with this in mind I don’t think that it’s possible for a military force to be used simply for national defense due to the nature of the state (to expand its power). It’s a small point, but I felt the need to clarify it.

  3. Keshav Srinivasan says:

    I assume they mean mental health before you served in the military.

  4. Sean says:

    Study here.

    It looks like they ‘controlled’ only for age and sex, and tested the potential hazards independently. Check out tables 3 and 4 for the Age- and Sex-Adjusted HR.

    Number of deployments actually decreases the hazard. The days-deployed ratios are interesting.
    0 Days – 1 (reference),
    0-90 days 1.01,
    91-180 1.22,
    181-365 0.63,
    365+ 0.28
    (with a p-value of 0.04)
    — it seems like the military should just have the first deployment be 89 days, and then the second depolyment be 91, and they can lick this suicide thing.

    • Joseph Fetz says:

      It isn’t the length, it is the incidence.

      • Sean says:

        I don’t understand what you mean.

        • Joseph Fetz says:

          Well, you could have 6 month deployments, 18 month deployments, or you can have really short deployments, but in quick succession, but still being the same length over the longer term period. It really won’t make much of a difference, I don’t think.

          • Sean says:

            I don’t think I understand, because I don’t know what you’re referencing. Look through the tables in the link I posted. It does make a difference, those are cumulative days deployed. And only that small 91-180 days deployed had a higher hazard rate.

            Not deployed? Deployed without combat? Deployed with combat? All about the same risk for suicide.

            Deployed once? Slightly less chance of suicide! Deployed more than once? Even less risk!

            And once you’ve deployed for more than 180 days (cumulative across all deployments), the risk of suicide drops fast!

            • Cosmo Kramer says:

              There is incredible room for error just in looking at deployment length.

              Look at who deploys for 90 days……

              Special Forces

              Look at who deploys for 180 days


              Look at who deploys for 1 year

              Most of everyone else

              Mind telling me who sees the most combat? Special operators are constantly in the sh**.

              A regular unit can NOT deploy for only 90 days. It takes many months of work/planning just to deploy, then about 1 month on ground to get set up. It takes over 1 month just to pack up and come home, so 6 month deployments are not exactly plausible either. You can only deploy for short durations if there are assets on ground OR you are in Spec Ops. A regular unit just doesn’t have that kind of mobility.

              Stop thinking the data you are talking about means anything.

              “With the highest rates among Marine Corps and Army personnel.”

              Gee! I wonder why…….

            • Joseph Fetz says:

              Sean, I think I see what is going on here. You’re looking at it in terms of minimizing the instances (of suicides) whereas what I am saying is that it is the deployment itself that is the primary factor. Obviously, the nature of the deployment is also a factor, after all, one would expect the results of a wartime deployment to be different from that of a peacetime deployment.

              Looking back I can see where this confusion might’ve come about, I had a misspelling. When I said “incidence” what I really meant to say was “incidents”.

    • Sean says:

      By the way, the report cites other studies which show the rate increasing from ~11/100k in 2005 to ~18/100k in 2009, “with the highest rates among Marine Corps and Army personnel.”

      In their subset (from samples taken in 2000, 2003, and 2006-8), the rate was only 11.6. So they’re at the right rate for the years, but have completely missed the spike. So they can’t tell exactly what changed the low rate to higher rate.

  5. Scott Lazarowitz says:

    They didn’t discuss the many soldiers who are being given those dangerous anti-depressants, many of whose side effects can include causing depression and suicidal urges (as opposed to preventing them). Those anti-depressants include mainly the SSRIs. Not only are the military doctors handing these things out like candy, but the soldiers are mixing various drugs together into “cocktails,” thus screwing themselves up even more. God forbid NPR should note this.

    By the way, among the several more recent mass shootings, such as Sandy Hook, Aurora and Virginia Tech, the shooters had been taking at least one of those SSRI drugs. (But the mainstream corporate media do not disclose these facts out of their allegiance to Big Pharma.)


  6. RPLong says:

    You don’t need a study for this; you just need to actually talk to vets.

  7. Daniel Kuehn says:

    Nice catch – I’ve got thoughts on it here: http://www.factsandotherstubbornthings.blogspot.com/2013/08/the-importance-of-identifying-your.html

    I think a lot of the problems with this sort of research come from differences in how psychologists use statistics. Economists are generally better at handling non-experimental impact studies.

    • Major_freedom says:

      There are also fewer economists than psychologists on the military payroll to spin a positive PR.

  8. Cosmo Kramer says:

    While deployed, most of my company was great mentally. There were a few that went a little nuts and just got in a bit of trouble with superiors. It was a whole different story once we returned to the US. A good number of our soldiers couldn’t fit back in to a garrison setting. Drug use spiked after we returned also. Being in Afghanistan is much more relaxed than being in garrison. Formations are few. Uniform standards are low etc etc. The enemy had different standards for us though.

    It isn’t just the deployment either. It is also the THREAT of being deployed.

    Why this topic needs to be studied is beyond me. It is common sense. War is ugly, both on our enemies and us. War has consequences long after the conflict ends.

  9. JimS says:

    I remember returning from a deployment. The ship was close enough to the coast and we could pick up television. We were watching “Donahue” (gives you and idea as to time frame). We were watching this as it was the only thing we could get not because we like Donahue (a favorite was the 20 Minute Workout). This Donahue was a show where someone was discussing the traumatic effect of some type of assualt on their person. An old Gunnery Sgt. walked in and watched a bit and then spouted off; “Why is everything a traumatic experience? Did a viking step off a ship and split some guy’s skull down to the naval have a traumatic experience? Did he weep and moan the rest of his miserable life until his eventual suicide? No! He got back on the boat and went about his business.”

    He had a point, though not tactfully stated. People served in military organizations for very different reasons, years ago. They also came from a segment of society that was schooled in ethics and classics, unlike today. Today people join with what is in it for them. How they will get a job, a bonus or money for school. Odd to think that you will go about “splitting skulls”, get money for school and somehow become enlightened and educated.

    Some of this may also come from a society that generally frowns upon the military. Inundated with why we are at fault may push certain folks over the edge, but the most basic element is many are of a different moral fiber. Manning was stripped of his bedding and clothes not to “torture” him but because he had shown suicidal traits that concerned his captors.

  10. Eric Bergemann says:

    I believe Colonel Dave Grossman, in “On Killing”, did a good job of debunking the idea that the length of deployment was the main cause of depression and suicides among soldiers. While there are many things that all contribute; the main cause is the fact that they are psychologically having to resolve, within themselves, that they just killed someone. The closer they are to the victim the greater the impact.

    If you guys get the chance read “On Killing” by Dave Grossman, it is a great read. You can ignore some of the policies he advocates, when he sticks to psychology he does a wonderful job.

  11. Joel Poindexter says:

    There’s some research that links guilt and shame with PTSD and suicide, much of it new and still being explored. My own experience in the army with multiple deployments leads my to believe they’re on the right track. More here: https://msrc.fsu.edu/news/guilt-and-shame-linked-soldiers’-suicide-risks

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