WASHINGTON – The Army is collaborating with the National Institute of Mental Health to launch the largest study ever undertaken of suicide and mental health among military personnel.

“The bottom line is, we want to apply science in a way that it’s going to solve this problem to the benefit of soldiers,” Robert Heinssen, NIMH’s acting director of intervention research said during a Nov. 18 interview on the Pentagon Channel podcast, “Armed with Science: Research and Applications for the Modern Military.”

The institute is partnering with an academic team led by the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences that includes researchers from Harvard University, Columbia University and the University of Michigan. The team aims to develop a research agenda and research projects that look at the causes of, and areas for intervention in, a variety of mental disorders.

The project is going to capitalize on the data the Army already collects on servicemembers including training experiences, deployments, exposure during deployment, as well as information about health problems and utilization of health services, Heinssen said.

The first part of the study will look at the records of soldiers who committed suicide between 2004 and 2009, compared to a control group of soldiers from the same period that did not commit suicide, but have other characteristics that would be important for purposes of comparison, he said.

“By doing this kind of case-controlled study where the individual suicides are the cases and the controls are drawn from the rest of the Army, we think that we’ll get some early leads on signals that may tell us something about potential risk and protective factors that will help us target the second part of the study, which will be a survey of soldiers who are currently serving in the active duty component,” he said.

The survey will be conducted with several thousand soldiers every month over three consecutive years, covering about 90,000 servicemembers, Heinssen said. The investigators also will survey 100,000 new recruits a year over a three-year period and continue to follow them over time, he said.

Studies are a great way to identify risk factors and prevention and intervention practices, Heinssen said. He referenced the landmark Framingham Heart Study where participants agreed to have aspects of their lifestyle and medical conditions followed over time to shed light on the causes of heart disease and strokes, and how to better intervene before problems become critical.

“Our belief is that if we roll out a research program similar in its characteristics to what was done in heart disease, that we will identify risk and protective factors,” Heinssen said, adding that such a program will help identify targets for intervention before acute distress leads to suicides.

“The end game here is to be able to intervene with preventive strategies early in the process so that we keep soldiers healthy and robust, and that we interrupt the kind of process that would lead to acute distress and the tragic choices to take one’s life,” he said.

Project researchers will use an adaptive research design that allows them to re-target the study based on what is happening in the Army at the time. Heinssen said doing the study in this method allows them to deliver “actionable information” to the Army at least twice a year and sooner if they find anything that may be relevant to treatment or intervention.

“It could not have been easy to look outside your own organization to ask somebody whether they had tools and perspectives that might be helpful,” he said. “But the Army showed tremendous courage and leadership in doing that.”

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