Suicide Prevention

Military Trying to Predict Suicides

The Army has a new plan to prevent suicides using a computer program that identifies soldiers at risk. Hanqing Chen explains.

U.S. military officials plan to stem the rising toll of suicide among service members with a controversial data-driven tactic. The National Institute of Mental Health and the U.S. Army have recently seen the fruits of a 65 million dollar partnership to create an assessment program that aims to flag soldiers at high risk so that officials can intervene and offer help before to prevent potential suicides from occurring.

The first-of-its-kind program was developed using data gathered from a study of around 400,000 soldiers’ deployment, health and personnel records between from between 2004 and 2009, conducted by former Army secretary Pete Geren. By examining thousands of personnel records with an eye for key risk factors, researchers identified a subgroup of soldiers that comprised 0.8 percent of the total sample, yet accounted for an astounding 14 percent of all suicides. In this subgroup, the suicide rate was 358 out of 100,000—30 times greater than the historical rate for the army. The findings from the study were then compiled to build a profile that would be used to identify the most at-risk soldiers.

Once the computer identified soldiers who fit the profile, company commanders would be given a list of names of the at-risk soldiers within their units so that they could approach them for counseling. Mental health providers would also be alerted.

Kim Ruocco, a director at the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors raised concerns that with soldiers anxieties already high due to the military’s planned downsizing, the new program may inadvertently isolate troubled soldiers and exacerbate their problems. But military leaders emphasized that soldiers who were identified as at-risk would be approached with support and reassured that asking for help would not threaten their job.

The program also has detractors in the civilian scientific community. Lanny Berman, a psychologist and executive director of the American Association of Suicidology told USA Today that there is no way to link the program directly to any change in suicide rate, making it hard to judge the effectiveness of the effort. However, Army Deputy Undersecretary Thomas Hawley emphasized that the program “is not an academic exercise … this is a real-world effort for real soldiers."

Military leaders are hoping to launch the pilot program by next spring.

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