Military Suicides Are Higher Than We Think

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Careful readers note that most reporting on military suicides calls them “suspected” suicides, and for a good reason — only after a careful investigation can the authorities make a declaration that someone intentionally took his or her own life. Obviously, errors here can only add to the burden of losing a loved one.

So that’s what makes page 190 of the Army’s latest report into its suicide prevention efforts so startling: “Research has shown that in 1998-99, for all branches of the military, there were likely 17% more suicides from among the equivocal deaths determined as either accidental or undetermined,” it says. “The same research showed an additional 4% of deaths were suspicious for suicide, suggesting that reporting and classification problems may conservatively account for 21% additional suicides in the military.” In other words, a lot more troops may be killing themselves than we thought.

Apparently, declaring a death a suicide isn’t always clear-cut. The Army report refers to a 2004 study done for the American Society of Suicidology entitled Suicide Surveillance in the U.S. Military—Reporting and Classification Biases in Rate Calculations.

“This study suggests that reporting and classification errors conservatively accounts for an additional 21% of suicides in the military,” it concludes. “The purpose of this investigation is not to second-guess the casualty reports,” it adds, but “to provide a better estimate of the true incidence of suicide in the military.”

Four experts — two from the Army and two from the Pentagon — drilled down into the paperwork generated when someone in uniform died from “accidental” or “undetermined” causes that involved “gunshot, overdose, drowning, falls or asphyxia.” They re-investigated these deaths looking for “evidence of expressed suicidal intent and past psychiatric history.” Their finer comb added 48 potential suicides to the 286 officially acknowledged by the military in 1998 and 1999. “This could conservatively change the official rate of 10.4 suicides per 100,000 per year to 12.6 suicides (21% change) per 100,000 per year for all services,” they concluded (last year’s official rate for the active-duty military was 20.3, nearly double the civilian rate).

The report cited several cases that it felt should have been deemed suicides but were not, including:

— 20-year-old male with history of depression and prior suicide attempts. Currently undergoing marital difficulties. Had voiced suicidal intent to spouse. Found drowned in harbor. Official Classification: Accident, due to a report by a witness that he appeared to be attempting to swim.

— 33-year-old male with reported history of depression and prior suicide attempts. Had frequently voiced and emailed suicidal intent to spouse. Found drowned in creek. Official Classification: Undetermined due to difficulties determining how he drowned himself in relatively shallow water.

— 31-year-old male with opiate intoxication death. Past medical history significant for alcohol abuse with depression and past suicide gesture. Official Classification: Accident due to hospital records that he was seeking pain medication for existing gastrointestinal complaint.

— 18-year-old male with history of suicide attempt a couple weeks prior found drowned near vehicle at waterfront. Mechanism of death unknown, but autopsy revealed vertical lacerations on the left wrist. Official Classification: Accident due to lack of evidence, but given strong consideration for suicide when later reviewed by a forensic pathologist.

— 23-year-old male with history of being raped a week before his death shot himself with a handgun. He had multiple handwritten poems regarding his generally poor relationships as well as his unhappiness with the military. Handgun was fired into right cheek and bullet exited left side of skull. Official Classification: Undetermined due to psychological autopsy that demonstrated lack of evidence for past or current psychiatric problems.

— 20-year-old male who died from self-inflicted close range gunshot. This case was not thoroughly investigated due to jurisdictional issues with civilian law enforcement agencies. Bullet entered right temple and exited left. Official Classification: Accident due to lack of evidence, but given strong consideration for suicide when later reviewed by a forensic pathologist.

There is little good news in such a report, except for this: civilian authorities do an even poorer job detecting suicides, missing between 24 and 38 percent of them, according to several studies.