Undiagnosed Brain Injuries Significant Contributor to Increased Suicides in Military, Veteran Populations

US Marine Sgt. Anthony Zabala of runs to safety as an 3000-pound Improvised Explosive Device (IED) explodes during a patrol in Helmand Province July 13, 2009. Doctors warn of greatly increased suicide risk for those who have suffered TBI, with an even greater danger cited for individuals who are undiagnosed or misdiagnosed. (Manpreet Romana/AFP)

Diagnosis of Traumatic Brain Injury Key to Preventing Military Suicide

by Rolf Gainer Ph.D.
Neurologic Rehabilitation Institute, Feb. 13, 2012

Between 2005 and 2010 an active U.S. service member committed suicide every 36 hours, according to a report by the Center for a New American Security.

The figures for veterans are even worse.

The report also revealed the startling figure that although only 1% of Americans served in the military, veterans represent 20% of U.S. suicides; a U.S. veteran takes his or her life every 80 minutes. The report warned that as more American troops return home from wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the issue of military suicide will require increased attention.

One factor that contributes to soldiers’ suicides is undiagnosed or untreated brain injuries.

“Individuals with traumatic brain injury (TBI), for instance, are 1.5 times more likely than healthy individuals to die from suicide,” states the report. TBI has been a signature wound for troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Even mild brain injuries can cause mood swings, paranoia, depression and memory loss—factors that can contribute to troops committing suicide. TBI can be especially dangerous since the effects can show up long after the event, especially with individuals who have experienced multiple exposures to explosions.

Though the U.S. armed forces see every soldier or veteran’s suicide as a lost battle, they are committed to winning the war. The Pentagon has taken measures to identify at-risk soldiers and provide them with the help that they need. These include more aggressive efforts to screen soldiers for brain injuries and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

The military recently began requiring soldiers with even a mild concussion to have 24 hours of rest. A second head injury requires seven days free of physical activity. After a third head injury the soldier needs to be examined by a neurologist.

The army identified five times as many concussion cases in 2010 as in 2000. A recent technological advance has given the military a new tool to detect blast exposure and potential injuries. This wearable device provides medics and field personnel with an indicator of exposure to blast and its severity.

The military’s efforts are paying off. 2011 saw an 8% drop in active duty suicides. But as service men and women return home from deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan, they may require extra help treating TBIs and PTSD.

Since each TBI is has different symptoms, veterans need an individual treatment plan that will focus on helping them adjust to civilian life. If soldiers can be diagnosed early and given proper treatment for TBIs and PTSD, the rate of military suicides can hopefully decrease dramatically.

As the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan wind down we will be seeing the psychological effects of the war as well as undiagnosed brain injuries as the veterans return to civilian life.

Over recent years we have seen a steady increase in the number of veterans we have served at Brookhaven who have come to the hospital with psychological distress, substance abuse problems as well as with the issues we know are associated with the long-term effects of multiple concussive injuries.

This population of returning soldiers will require resources for many years into the future to assure a positive return to civilian life.

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