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Army, NIMH Search for Causes of Soldier Suicide Crisis

August 20, 2009

The startling increase in the number of suicides by members of the U.S. Army in the last few years prompts a major collaborative study of risk and protective factors.

The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) has tapped a consortium of four research universities to investigate risk and protective factors influencing a troubling increase in suicides in the U.S. Army.

The number of suicides by U.S. soldiers has risen steadily in recent years until levels have equaled those among comparable civilians, who historically have had higher rates. Responding to concern from Congress, the public, and Pentagon officials, the Army allotted $50 million to NIMH for the new study, whose goal is to "provide a science base for effective and practical interventions to reduce suicide rates and address associated mental health problems," according to an NIMH statement.

Robert Ursano, M.D., director of the Center for Traumatic Stress Studies at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences (USUHS) in Bethesda, Md., where he also chairs the Department of Psychiatry, will direct the project, the largest ever military study of suicide and mental health.

"This is a unique joining of the Department of Defense and the NIMH to address an issue of national security that will also build tools with peacetime implications," Ursano told Psychiatric News.

His principal collaborators will each add a different area of expertise to USUHS's familiarity with military epidemiology. Stephen Heeringa, Ph.D., of the University of Michigan's Institute for Social Research has experience in securely handling large datasets. Ronald Kessler, Ph.D., of Harvard Medical School is a leading psychiatric epidemiologist, while Columbia University's J. John Mann, M.D., has extensively studied the neurobiology of suicide and the use of the psychological autopsy to examine factors leading up to the event.

Former APA President Paul Appelbaum, M.D., the Elizabeth K. Dollard Professor of Psychiatry, Medicine, and Law and director of the Division of Psychiatry, Law, and Ethics at the Department of Psychiatry at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, will chair the project's ethics committee, which faces two primary challenges in a study of military populations: confidentiality of information and voluntariness of consent to protect soldiers from coercion and undue influence.

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