UH-Hilo study finds active duty suicides have increased since ‘endless wars’ began

  • Smith

  • Freuh

A new study recently published by researchers from the University of Hawaii at Hilo is challenging the belief that combat increases suicide rates in active duty U.S. Army forces.

The study, “A Historical Examination of Military Records of U.S. Army Suicide, 1819 to 2017,” which compares nearly 200 years of historical data, was published earlier this month in the Journal of the American Medical Association Network Open.

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Lead researcher Jeffrey Smith, associate professor and chair of the history department at UH-Hilo, said one of the more surprising findings is that historically speaking, it appears suicide rates declined during active combat through the 19th and first half of the 20th centuries.

However, Smith said, from the mid-20th century and onward, with the “endless wars in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan,” active duty suicides have increased, which might indicate a new pattern or paradigm is emerging.

“From our standpoint, we think this might be a result of factors away from the battle field … and that it doesn’t appear to be singularly driven by combat exposure,” he said.

The study is being touted as the most extensive historical examination of such deaths to date.

“Since 2004, the suicide rate among active duty personnel in the U.S. military has risen substantially,” the published article reads. “Because of the recent nature of this phenomenon, current studies generally use relatively little historical perspective or data. Placing today’s medical and military explanations and theories in historical context is fundamental to gaining a deeper understanding of the current phenomenon of increases in suicides among active duty military personnel.”

Smith’s coauthors are Michael Doidge, historian with the U.S. Department of Defense’s Defense Health Agency; Ryan Hanoa, a senior majoring in history at UH-Hilo; and B. Christopher Frueh, a clinical psychologist and professor of psychology at UH-Hilo.

Frueh and Smith have collaborated with each other since 2011 and published a 2012 study that estimated rates of suicide, alcohol abuse and probable psychiatric illness among Union Forces during the Civil War by looking at data compiled by the Union Army.

Hanoa was born and raised on Hawaii Island and is a veteran of the U.S. Navy.

The research for the current study took the team “quite some time,” Smith said, adding that they intermittently worked on the research since 2012.

“All the rates and all the data we used is publicly available,” he said, but it can be difficult to sift through reports that could be hundreds of pages long.

The research is important because veteran suicide is a “national crisis we’re still trying to get a handle on,” Smith said. “Anything we can do to help understand what’s happening is productive research.”

According to Smith, researchers are approaching the matter “from a historical standpoint,” with the argument that “you can’t really understand a problem until you understand the history of it.”

Looking at the subject through that lens “shapes the questions you have and where you look for those answers.”

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Smith said the hope is to follow this research with more studies in the near future to examine what these trends might mean “comparative to other branches of the military and causal factors.”

Email Stephanie Salmons at ssalmons@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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