Study explores military-family functioning before and after suicide deaths

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — For the first time in modern history, the suicide rate of active-duty service members exceeds that of the civilian population. This finding is even more alarming considering that the suicide rate for U.S. civilians hit a 30-year high in 2014, rising a staggering 24 percent in the preceding 15 years.

Neither the factors that contribute to service-member suicides, nor the impact of suicides on military families are well understood. “It has been assumed for a long time that the increase in military suicides was due to the high operational tempo of the Global War on Terror,” stated Keith Aronson, associate director of the Clearinghouse for Military Family Readiness at Penn State and senior research associate in the department of biobehavioral health. “However, there are conflicting findings in the research with some studies finding the highest suicide rates are actually among those service members who never deployed.”

A recent study conducted by the Clearinghouse for Military Family Readiness at Penn State and supported by a grant from the U.S. Navy, examined nondeployment related factors that precede military suicide, and the impact of those suicides on spouses and families. The study’s findings were recently published in the online journal Military Psychology.

The researchers identified 70 surviving spouses of Marines who died by suicide, combat or accident from 2008 to 2010. Spouses were asked to report on their personal and family functioning and attitudes toward the military both before and immediately after the Marine’s death. Spouses were also asked about their current health and well-being.

Spouses of Marines who died by suicide reported significantly lower family cohesiveness and were five times more likely to report family conflict in the year prior to the death compared to spouses of Marines who died in combat. Spouses of those who died by suicide also reported having poorer psychological health in the year prior to the suicide. There were no differences in spouse attitudes toward the military either before or after Marine deaths, and attitudes remained relatively positive.

These findings suggest that programs and policies that enhance military family functioning, which is a critical outcome in and of itself, may also have the additional benefit of reducing service-member suicides. The military has universal programs designed to strengthen families, as well as targeted programs for at-risk families, such as the Family Advocacy Program, which provides services and support to reduce interfamilial conflict.

“Our study indicates that building a connection between family programs and services, particularly those designed to decrease conflict and increase closeness, and those efforts focused on reducing suicide risk among service members, such as individual therapy, could provide a stronger suicide-prevention framework in the military,” stated Daniel Perkins, director of the Clearinghouse for Military Family Readiness and professor of family and youth resiliency and policy. “It may not be enough to simply treat the service member who is struggling with thoughts of self-harm, if there are family factors that are not being addressed.”

Compared to spouses of Marines who died in combat, those spouses whose Marine died by suicide reported having more difficulty immediately after the death, including experiencing greater levels of perceived social stigma. They also reported greater feelings of guilt and shame. While spouses of Marines who died by suicide said they received less social support from friends, they reported more support from family.

“A common theme we heard from spouses who were bereaved by suicide was that they encountered two problems related to adjusting to their loved one’s death,” said Aronson. “On one hand, they told us that some friends avoided them. On the other hand, a fair number indicated that because of the stigma, guilt and shame, they often avoided contacts with others.” Feelings of isolation were commonly reported.

On average, all the Marines had died four years prior to the interviews with spouses. In terms of current functioning, there were no differences across spouses who experienced suicide, combat, or accidental death, with one exception. Spouses of those who died by suicide were slightly more likely to say that they saw new possibilities in their future. Only 16 percent of spouses reported that they were currently experiencing a substantial amount of family stress. The vast majority reported either a moderate or small amount of current family stress. Nearly all spouses of Marines who died by suicide were concerned about the effects of the suicide on their children, although current child well-being did not differ as a function of cause of death.

Other researchers on the project include Sandee Kyler, assistant director of Penn State’s Child Maltreatment Solutions Network; Nicole Morgan, research and evaluation scientist for the Clearinghouse for Military Family Readiness; and Linda Love, branch head of bio-behavioral health at the U.S. Marine Corps.

The Clearinghouse for Military Family Readiness, part of the Social Science Research Institute, is a research center focused on enhancing the health and well-being of service members and their families.

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Last Updated July 28, 2017