Written by William & Mary Law Student Tom Sandbrink

It has become fairly well known that suicide rates are higher among recent veterans than the civilian population when other factors such as age, gender, etc. are controlled for.[1] Conventional wisdom has attributed this to differences in the length and number of deployments in comparison to prior wars.[2] In addition, improved medical treatment and better protective gear has allowed servicemembers to survive combat situations that previously would have resulted in death,[3] but these situations have still left mental scars which, if left untreated, can be just as devastating as the physical injuries.

A recently published study in the Annals of Epidemiology has called the conventionally believed causes of higher veteran suicide rates into question.[4] The study analyzed the records of 1,282,074 veterans who served in active-duty units between 2001 and 2007 and then left the military during that period.[5] The study found that deployment to war zones by itself did not correlate with higher suicide rates in veterans.[6] In fact, it found that rates were just as high if not higher in non-deployed veterans.[7]

In an article covering the study, Michael Schoenbaum, an epidemiologist with the National Institute of Mental Health, was quoted, “People’s natural instinct is to explain military suicide by the war-is-hell theory of the world, but it’s more complicated.”[8] Unfortunately, the study was unable to pinpoint the exact causes behind the higher suicide rates of non-deployed veterans. However, its authors speculated that contributing factors could include the greater medical screening, counseling, and treatment programs available to deployed servicemembers.[9] Similarly, another factor could be that servicemembers who are exhibiting psychological problems are held back from deployment.[10] In 1996 the military began screening soldiers who were deploying and returning from combat zones.[11] As a result, servicemembers who deploy to combat zones are less likely to have a preexisting mental health issue and when they return there is a greater likelihood that mental disorders incurred during deployment will be identified and treated.

Whatever the cause, the study shows that mental health issues are not limited to combat veterans. While exposure to combat increases the risk of PTSD,[12] veterans who do not serve in war zones are still susceptible to mental health issues. Because suicide affects non-deployed servicemembers at similarly high rates, perhaps extending screening policies to non-combat units to better identify individuals suffering from serious mental health issues would help reduce suicide.


[1] E.g., Alan Zarembo, Detailed Study Confirms High Suicide Rate among Recent Veterans, L.A. Times (January 14, 2015), http://www.latimes.com/nation/la-na-veteran-suicide-20150115-story.html.

[2] Han K. Kang et al., Suicide Risk among 1.3 million Veterans who were on Active Duty

During the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars, 25 Annals of Epidemiology 96, 96 (2015).

[3] Id.

[4] Id.

[5] Id., at 97.

[6] Id., at 99.

[7] Id.

[8] Zarembo, supra note 1.

[9] Kang, supra note 2, at 99.

[10] Zarembo, supra note 1.

[11] Paul Bliese, et al., Post-Deployment Mental Health Screening Instruments: How Good are They? (2004), www.dtic.mil/cgi-bin/GetTRDoc?AD=ada433073.

[12] U.S. Dep’t of Veterans Affairs, Mental Health Effects of Serving in Afghanistan and Iraq, http://www.ptsd.va.gov/public/PTSD-overview/reintegration/overview-mental-health-effects.asp.