Army Suicide Rate and Random Variation
The Army’s suicide rate for 2006 is the highest in a generation. While this sounds alarming, and will naturally be attributed to the stresses of an ongoing war, the chances are quite good that this is mere random variation in a low frequency event.
Army soldiers committed suicide last year at the highest rate in 26 years, and more than a quarter did so while serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to a new military report. The report, obtained by The Associated Press ahead of its scheduled release Thursday, found there were 99 confirmed suicides among active duty soldiers during 2006, up from 88 the previous year and the highest number since the 102 suicides in 1991 at the time of the Persian Gulf War.
The suicide rate for the Army has fluctuated over the past 26 years, from last year’s high of 17.3 per 100,000 to a low of 9.1 per 100,000 in 2001.
Failed personal relationships, legal and financial problems and the stress of their jobs were factors motivating the soldiers to commit suicide, according to the report.
“In addition, there was a significant relationship between suicide attempts and number of days deployed” in Iraq, Afghanistan or nearby countries where troops are participating in the war effort, it said. The same pattern seemed to hold true for those who not only attempted, but succeeded in killing themselves.
Marc Danziger, whose son has recently enlisted in the military, has done some calculations and found that the Army suicide rate, even at this peak, is actually lower than for their civilian cohorts. That’s interesting indeed and speaks to the Army’s vetting process and support system.
Still, the fact that the Army is experiencing a spike in suicides, which seems correlated with deployments to war zones, is naturally disturbing. And it leads Jeralyn Merritt to serve up the Democratic Talking Point of the Day: “I blame President Bush. Every day he keeps our soldiers in this war, more of them are going to die.”
It’s true, of course, that soldiers die in wars. And not simply from combat action but from the added stress, including the effects the deployment has on their personal lives.
When I heard this story on NPR this morning as I was awakening, my initial reaction was that it’s not surprising that it’s been 26 years since the numbers were this high, since that was the last time the Army was engaged in a sustained war. But, of course, my groggy math was off by a decade: 26 years ago from 2006 is 1980, the last year of the Carter administration and a full seven years after our departure from Vietnam. Which means that, despite legitimate concern about suicides rising during this war (see here and here for stories from 2003), the rate was actually lower than it was during the peacetime Army of 1980.
During the intervening period, the high has been 17.3 per 100,000 and the low 9.1 per 100,000. It’s not only conceivable but probable that the fluctuation is essentially random, having more to do with the vagaries of the personal lives of the soldiers than what the Army is doing.
We had more suicides in 1991, the year of the first Gulf War, than in 2006. Granted, that was in a significantly larger Army. Still, the combat stress level was much lower then than now, owing to the shorter deployment and the fact that the enemy was easily identifiable. For that matter, there was a 26% increase in active-duty suicides from 1997 to 1999, during the Clinton administration.
We had a spike of more than 11 percent from 2005 to 2006. That’s huge. But it represents 11 individual soldiers. The preliminary numbers indicate that the rate will likely decline for 2007. That’s despite a surge in the number of soldiers deployed to Iraq and an increase in the combat tempo. If that holds, it almost surely means that the 2006 spike is largely random variation in a complex phenomenon. It’s noteworthy, too, that a study of British Army suicides from 1980 to 2006 shows a decline in recent years which continued through its deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan.
Karen M. Eaton and colleagues observe in the April 2006 issue of The American Association of Suicidology,
[S]uicides are low frequency for research due to the large population events. Even in larger populations, small differences in the number of self-inflicted deaths over time, or between groups over a single interval, can result in wide fluctuations in rates.
Their study, entitled, “Strengthening the Validity of Population-Based Suicide Rate Comparisons: An Illustration Using U.S. Military and Civilian Data” further concluded that, “suicide rate fluctuations as large as 20—40% in any year may be attributed to random error.”
The question of whether we should withdraw troops from Iraq is largely independent of this issue. The main costs of the war borne by soldiers are combat deaths, combat injuries, lost family time, and related matters. Further, the general cost to the nation and how it relates to the benefits of continuing the fight and the probability of success must be weighed. Random variation in the suicide rates among soldiers, however, is a poor basis for determining the nation’s foreign policy.