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Military Connection: New Suicide Screening: By Debbie Gregory

militay suicide screeningMilitary doctors are looking to reduce the number of suicides among service members with psychiatric conditions by implementing a new screening system that flags those who are at the highest risk of taking their own lives.

Most suicide screenings are questionnaires that are dependent on truthful answers from people who often feel the need to hide their true symptoms and intentions for fear of retribution. The questionnaires also offer little-to-no help in combining factors to predict suicide risk.

Doctors have known for years that mental health patients are at a high risk of suicide in the months after leaving the hospital. Military researchers wanted to know what, if anything, those who did commit suicide had in common. They thought that a great way to proceed would be the pooling of databases of the patient’s military and medical records.

The research team analyzed the records of 40,820 service members who were hospitalized at least once between 2004 and 2009 for a mental health disorder. Researchers found that 5% of the sample patients tested 15 times more likely to commit suicide during the first year after being released from the hospital than the rest of the test group.

The team formulated a list of more than 300 factors that could be related to suicide risk, including age, access to weapons, military rank, history of substance abuse, IQ, clashes with leadership, combat experience, PTSD diagnosis, and marital status.

Through their study, researchers were able narrow the list of factors down to those that together identified the 5% at highest risk, resulting in more than half of the suicides that occurred within the entire group in the year following hospital discharge.

Some of the shared factors among those at higher risk were expected, such as previous suicide attempts, contracting a traumatic brain injury, and a history of using weapons. But other factors, such as an enlistment age older than 26, and having a higher I.Q., came as a surprise.

Researchers believe that if the new prediction program can be integrated into the military’s medical system, it could allow doctors to follow high-risk soldiers closely after discharge, allowing them to take preventive measures. These measures could include outpatient therapy in the weeks after discharge, working to build social support by enlisting friends and family, and teaching coping mechanisms to deal with overwhelming feelings.

This type of suicide screening is not likely to be immediately useful for civilian hospitals, which do not have nearly as much personal data on patients as the military does.

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Military Connection: New Suicide Screening: By Debbie Gregory