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How Does Stress Affect Suicide Risks in the Military?

A new study from a team of American researchers indicates that soldiers dealing with chronic stress have substantially higher chances of seriously contemplating suicide than their counterparts exposed to only short-term stress.

Ongoing exposure to highly stressful situations is one of the known risk factors for the development of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). In turn, people affected by PTSD have statistically increased chances of thinking about committing suicide. In a study published in January 2015 in The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, researchers from two U.S. institutions compared the impact of chronic (ongoing) stress exposure and acute (short-term) stress on the odds that soldiers enrolled in the Army will experience serious bouts of suicidal thinking.

Acute Stress and Chronic Stress

There are three main forms of stress: acute stress, episodic acute stress and chronic stress. Acute stress occurs most often in the general population; this relatively mild condition produces symptoms that can include emotional upset, gastrointestinal problems, muscle aches and temporary exposure to the changes in body function that characterize the human “fight-or-flight” response. Episodic acute stress is a more serious condition that occurs when an individual repeatedly or frequently experiences bouts of acute stress. This level of stress exposure produces a greater strain on mental and physical function and can trigger symptoms that include migraine headaches, high blood pressure, angina and cardiovascular (heart and blood vessel) disease.

People dealing with chronic stress experience exposure to constant or near-constant stressful situations for extended periods of time. This level of stress exposure can profoundly alter an individual’s mental and physical health, leading to such severe potential outcomes as heart attacks, aggressive or violent behavior and strokes. In some cases, the origins of chronic stress are highly traumatic events that occur early in life or later in life. Unfortunately, this form of stress can exert its influence so often that affected individuals treat their altered mental and physical landscape as a fact of life and fail to seek help for their condition.

Military Service and Suicide

Veterans of both genders have substantially higher suicide rates than their counterparts who never serve in the military, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs’ National Center for PTSD reports. Among men, military service roughly doubles suicide risks. Among women, military service increases suicide risks even more. Exposure to highly stressful events capable of producing emotional trauma is one of the known risks factors for both the onset of PTSD and increased suicide rates among veterans. In addition to combat exposure, potential sources of trauma in servicemen and servicewomen include a history of child maltreatment (child abuse and/or child neglect) and being sexually assaulted while enrolled in the military. Even when people on active duty and service veterans don’t fully meet the criteria for a PTSD diagnosis, their odds of thinking about suicide can rise dramatically.

Impact of Stress

In the study published in The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, researchers from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and the University of Utah used a small-scale project involving 54 soldiers serving in the U.S. Army to explore the impact that acute stress and chronic stress have on the tendency to consider committing suicide. All of the enrolled soldiers were categorized as “acutely suicidal” at the beginning of the project. For each individual, the researchers identified sources of acute stress (which, by definition, last for a relatively short amount of time) and sources of chronic stress. In addition, they examined the frequency of each participant’s involvement in suicidal thinking, as well as each participant’s history of actually trying to commit suicide.

The researchers concluded that the number of chronic stress sources in a soldier’s life helps predict the odds that he or she will experience severe bouts of suicidal thinking. They did not find the same relationship between the number of acute stress sources and the odds of seriously contemplating suicide. The researchers also concluded that the combination of multiple sources of chronic stress and bouts of severely suicidal thinking increases the chances that a soldier will attempt suicide more than once.

The study’s authors note that suicidal thinking decreased considerably among the study participants who lowered their chronic stress exposures in the half-year following the main phase of the project.

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