August 17, 2012

On Friday, the Pentagon reported that 38 soldiers killed themselves in July, the worst month for Army suicides since figures became public in 2009 and twice the number of troops killed in Afghanistan so far this month. Though suicide among service members is epidemic, a new study from the University of Utah may be the first to explain why.

“The primary function of suicidal behaviors is to reduce or escape from intense psychological suffering,” Craig J. Bryan, M. David Rudd and Evelyn Wertenbergerwrite in “Reasons for Suicide Attempts in a Clinical Sample of Active Duty Soldiers,” published in the Journal of Affective Disorders.

This seems self-evident. Haven’t people experiencing “intense psychological suffering” killed themselves since before Socrates drank hemlock? Yet scientific confirmation that suicide isn’t just a symptom of mental illness but a response to stress may change the way psychologists treat veterans suffering from battle-induced post-traumatic stress disorder.

“From a treatment perspective, we don’t pay attention to the psychiatric diagnosis and treat suicide risk as a unique problem,” Bryan, associate director of the University of Utah’s National Center for Veterans Studies, said in an interview. “Patients lack emotional regulation skills — they don’t know how to control suffering or manage it.”

To reduce suicide, the study says, vets might not need to medicate, but meditate. “Explicit skills training in alternative behaviors that serve an emotion regulation function (e.g. mindfulness, relaxation, cognitive restructuring) could replace the use of suicidal behaviors for this same purpose,” it says.

Breathing exercises and transcendental meditation aren’t “rocket science,” Bryan says, but may more effectively help soldiers reduce the stress that triggers the bad decisions that could end in a suicide attempt.

“We diagram for them why they are suicidal,” Bryan says. “The missing piece is that underlying model of why people attempt suicide.”

Justin Moyer, Outlook editorial aide

Justin Moyer is deputy editor of the Morning Mix.