From the Archives: US Army’s Suicide Risk and Resilience Project

In 2011, we reported on a longitudinal study starting up that aimed to find reliable biomarkers for compromised mental health among army personnel, as the Framingham Heart Study did for heart health. The US Army and the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), teamed up to pursue the Army Study To Assess Risk and Resilience in Service members (STARRS).

Historically, the suicide rate among Army personnel has been lower than that of the general population, but starting in 2004, the suicide rate among soldiers began rising, reaching their highest yearly number in 2012.

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Credit: Shutterstock

From our story:

“We knew back in 2008 that we had to take decisive action,” says Lt. Col. Steve Warren, a spokesperson for the Army’s Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Peter Chiarelli, the driving force behind the STARRS study. “We formed a suicide prevention task force, and soon realized that there just isn’t a lot of research into what causes people in general, or soldiers in particular, to take their own lives. We knew we needed to learn more.”

Gen. Chiarelli and colleagues at the Pentagon contacted Thomas Insel, the NIMH’s director, to help learn more about suicide and the brain. As the Army and experts from the NIMH met and discussed the suicide epidemic, they soon realized there was not any single factor driving the increased suicide rate in the military.

“We started with this notion that the increased suicide rates were basically driven by a single factor—and we all had our opinions about what that factor might be,” says Insel, who is also a member of the Dana Alliance for Brain Initiatives. “There were a lot of ideas floating around, especially regarding deployments and time in theater, but we soon realized what we really needed to do was back up and get more information about both risk and resilience in a broad way. And someone said, ‘Hey, this sounds a lot like the Framingham study.’

Insel has since moved on, and the STARRS project ended last year, but the research goes on, funded by the Department of Defense and now called STARRS-LS (adding “longitudinal study”). The first of many results were published in 2012; and last year one team reported on risk factors for suicide attempts and another found no link between suicide and overseas deployment. Seven studies are reportedly in press just this year.

This month, the Pentagon reported that military suicides remain high, though far lower than in 2012. The work continues.

—Nicky Penttila

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