Lisa Cacari Stone

Active duty service members are dying more often from suicide than on the battlefield in Iraq and Afghanistan, and those struggling with thoughts of depression are also more likely to keep it a secret, according to a new study which recently appeared in the Oxford University Press publication, Military Medicine. 

“Current wars have led to a devastating public health epidemic of suicide and mental health problems among our veterans and active duty GIs,” said Howard Waitzkin, MD, Phd, distinguished professor emeritus at the University of New Mexico, who is coordinating research at the UNM Health Sciences Center to evaluate the mental health needs of military personnel. Co-authors of the study included Mario Cruz, MD, UNM Clinical Professor of Psychiatry and Bryant Shuey, a fourth year medical student at UNM.

“The mental health consequences are showing themselves most dramatically in high rates of suicide that have recently averaged some 20 per day among veterans, and more than one per day among active duty military personnel,” Waitzkin said

UNM researchers and collaborators in Texas, Oregon and Massachusetts worked with volunteer health professionals in the Civilian Medical Resources Network and received referrals from the GI Rights Hotline, an organization staffed by members of peace and faith-based organizations. Altogether, they interviewed some 233 clients based in the U.S. and abroad before publishing results in an article, “Military Personnel Who Seek Health and Mental Health Services Outside the Military."   

Researchers found high rates of suicidal thoughts, depression, post-traumatic stress and anxiety in the men and women interviewed, yet military personnel gave numerous reasons for not seeking help within the military system. Among the barriers was a distrust that chain of command would protect their privacy, a fear they would be stigmatized and that seeking counseling might harm their careers, Waitzkin said.

“This research emphasizes the crisis facing our military personnel,” said Dr. Lisa Cacari-Stone, associate professor of Health and Social Policy, at the UNM College of Population Health and director of the Transdisciplinary Research, Equity and Engagement Center for Advancing Behavioral Health. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Center for Health Policy provided support for the study. 

“They deserve the right to seek the quality care of choice for the trauma and other mental health and substance abuse conditions incurred or exacerbated during combat, yet they often are forced to seek help outside the formal health care system.”