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Listen Again: At last, a drop in military suicides

The military suicide rate has dropped this year by more than 22 percent, according to figures from the Defense Department. Despite the encouraging news, suicide among military personnel and veterans remains a perplexing topic.

The drop is the first since 2004, yet researchers don't really understand why it has happened. Compounding their confusion, half of military suicides occur among soldiers who have never deployed.

We talked with two experts to get their insight into the continuing risk and the recent improvement. Some highlights from our conversation:

Dr. Elspeth Ritchie on risk factors for suicide:
We've actually known for a while that the individual deployment history is less important than issues such as family stressors, and also the rapid operations tempo of the unit, how frequently the unit has deployed....

In active duty military, who we study very closely — we know a lot, we have a report on just about everybody who has committed suicide — the stresses are related to relationship breakup, or getting in trouble at work, or financial problems, and often there are several of these going on together. It's not usually severe mental illness, different from the civilian population. But it is a lot of stresses happening at once and, all too often, easy availability of a weapon. And kind of an impulsive suicide. It's a normal pattern.

David Rudd on the falling suicide rate among military members:
It had traditionally been about half that of the general population, but over the course of the last decade it increased to slightly above the comparable civilian population. And that's why there was so much attention paid to it ... that traditional protective variable that you had in the military context was no longer there as a result of 10 years of war. ... The operational tempo has dropped considerably in the last couple of years, with the drawdown of the activity in Iraq, and now the drawdown of activity in Afghanistan, so you see that kind of parallel drop in the rates.

Caller who identified himself as a Marine captain, deployed twice to Iraq:
In Minnesota, we have 14 percent unemployment for post-9/11 veterans. ... You don't have a job, then alcohol comes in, then depression, then relationship [and] financial stuff, and then ultimately it leads to suicide. So I think employment is a key, key component to this situation.

Ritchie on the transition after deployment:
It absolutely is a very dangerous time. People no longer have the structure of the military. They may or may not want to go to seek help. They usually don't want to go. And there can be the change in relationships and living situation. ... Anecdotally, most of the time, when we look at Guard and Reservists, it seems to be a loss of meaningful employment. Maybe they're employed, maybe they're not. ... Often, somebody has essentially been running an Afghan village, or been the mayor of an Iraqi town, and they come back and it's hard to get a job stocking shelves. So there is a real change in status, and they also miss the camaraderie. They miss their buddies.

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