“Societal and cultural factors likely play a much larger role in military suicides than the military-specific factors of combat trauma or posttraumatic stress disorder, per se,” says Professor of Psychology Chris Frueh.
The longest comparison of U.S. Army and civilian suicides suggests societal factors are driving both military and civilian suicides, challenging assumptions that military suicides are primarily driven by combat trauma or other war-related causes. The University of Hawaiʻi at Hilo study, “A Historical Comparison of U.S. Army & U.S. Civilian Suicide Rates, 1900–2020,” was published in Psychiatry Research in March 2023.
“While much has been studied about suicide in the active-duty military and veteran communities, it may be counter-productive to focus narrowly on military-related suicides apart from the larger societal context, including considering comparative rates among civilians and long-term historical data on suicide in both civilian and military populations,” says Jeffrey Allen Smith, co-author and UH Hilo professor and chair of the history department.
Smith and co-authors UH Hilo Research Assistant Ryan Hanoa, UH Hilo Psychology Professor B. Christopher Frueh and federal historian Michael Doidge studied cross-sectional data from U.S. military health and personnel readiness reports and academic journal articles that were published from 1900 to 2022. U.S. civilian population data came from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Vital Statistics System.
“The data show that U.S. servicemember and similarly aged male civilian suicide rates have increased substantially since the start of the Global War on Terror. However, we do not currently know what is driving these suicides,” says Hanoa.
Among the significant findings:
- Historically, war did not appear to increase suicide rates in U.S. Army personnel or civilians.
- Since 1900, U.S. Army and similarly aged civilian male suicide rates have converged.
- It appears universal factors similarly affect both army and civilian populations.
- From 1900 to 2020, U.S. Army and civilian suicide rates appear to fluctuate similarly.
According to the article: “These results suggest that suicide rates among U.S. males (U.S. Army service members and civilians) have surged upward since 2006 and represent a new historical trend that is worrisome. …Rather than understanding military suicides as being primarily driven by combat trauma or PTSD, to be effective, prevention efforts should strive to understand military suicides through the lens of larger societal factors.”
“In other words, societal and cultural factors likely play a much larger role in military suicides than the military-specific factors of combat trauma or posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), per se,” Frueh says.
The research is a follow-up to the largest historical study to date of suicide in the U.S. Army, which was published Dec. 13, 2019 in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) Network Open. That comprehensive study, also coauthored by the same team of UH Hilo researchers, challenged the assumption that combat is the primary driver of suicide in active duty U.S. Army forces.