Personal And Professional Exposure To Suicide In Military Populations
Principal Investigator: 

Julie Cerel

Organization: 
University of Kentucky

There is growing evidence that exposure to the suicide of non-family members is associated with reduced mental health and increased suicidal behavior among those with perceptions of closeness to the decedent. In settings in which individuals live and work in close proximity, such as the military, it is likely that such perceptions of closeness are more common. Thus, a large group of people are exposed, and many will subsequently experience significant impact from the suicide. Only a handful of studies have examined the prevalence and correlates of suicide exposure among military and veteran populations, and none have examined the longitudinal experience of loss of a military colleague to suicide. Now that suicide exposure has been shown to be common and associated with psychiatric and suicide risk, it is imperative to distinguish the variables most associated with risk following exposure in order to identify unit members in greatest need of support and services and determine when such support will be most beneficial in reducing harm associated with exposure. Dr. Julie Cerel and her team are addressing this by examining the impact of military colleague suicide exposure in National Guard personnel and exploring the effect of suicide exposure on personnel who directly intervene in postvention response.

Dr. Cerel explains that, given the nature of military training and relationships, it is likely that they may not consider themselves ‘bereaved’ following a suicide death, but may experience intense emotional distress as a result of such exposure, nonetheless. It is often unknown which service members will be in need of intervention and when they will need such support. This is especially true in National Guard populations who spend brief intense periods of time with their units unless they are deployed, and are not held within military health care system in the same way Active Component service members are.

Dr. Cerel and her team are conducting two interrelated studies. First, to better understand the effects of military colleague suicide exposure among National Guard personnel, the team is recruiting 2,000 National Guard members to report on their exposure to suicide, mental health symptoms, trauma history, and personal and military supports. Those with occupational suicide exposure are invited to participate in interviews immediately and six months later. Those with no occupational exposure are followed up over six months with online questionnaires. Second, to inform postvention efforts, Dr. Cerel and her team are exploring the experience of suicide exposure in military personnel who assist in postvention efforts (e.g., social workers, Chaplains, and casualty assistance officers).

The results of this study will help understand unique personal and military-response specific variables related to military suicide exposure. This research may inform military leadership and improve policy to mitigate the long-term impact of suicide on units and prevent burnout in personnel who respond to suicides.