Why soldiers kill themselves: They know how to do it, they don’t feel like part of the team, and they feel burdensome to others
- By Thomas E. RicksThomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at email@example.com.
By Maj. Ryan Kranc
Best Defense guest contributor
Combat deployments are but one of many contributing factors but not the factor. I suspect ARFORGEN cycles have had a bit of an impact and suspect lowered entry standards during a period of time in the last decade is likely a contributing factor as well. Many of the suicidal ideations or self-harm are made by soldiers with no deployment history. However, when you peel back the onion you find a history of sexual assaults, physical and mental abuse, or behavioral issues, many of which predate their service.
Thomas Joiner’s interpersonal-psychology theory posits three prerequisites for suicidal behaviors:
1. Individuals perceive themselves as a burden to others
2. They exhibit a disenchanted sense of belongingness
3. They possess the capability to employ lethal means to facilitate their death "as a result of earlier experiences that have habituated them to pain and fear"
So we find that if people have acquired a capability to kill (to include a mindset that allows them to kill), don’t feel part of a team, and feel as if they place unnecessary strains on others they are more inclined to engage in suicidal ideation, suicidal gestures, or suicide completion. The military clearly gives a stronger acquired capability to kill over other professions.
The belongingness and burdensomeness aspects have puzzled me for quite some time. The monthly stats paint a picture lending to a theory. If you look at the overall trends, our greatest spikes occur during leave and PCS densities — a time when soldiers burden their families with a myriad of change (kids’ schools, moving stresses, anxiety of new jobs for both the soldier and spouse, new friends for the kids, etc.). Not only that, the soldiers departing leave an established team, a system they know well, and in some cases a team they deployed with. At a bare minimum, there’s 2 or 3 years of familiarity that fractures quickly. They have to find a new belonging, a new team, and no one is ever certain that they’ll have things as good as they understand it to be right now.
Stigmatization of mental health issues remains a touchy subject and can’t be ruled out as a possible contributing factor. While we may be better off at ventilating avenues for assistance than we once were, we still have a ways to go. The fact is that some people still do feel stigmatized in asking for help. We, as an Army, need to continue to work on supplementing words with actions in this regard.
Lastly, I’m no psychologist or social scientist — I’m a dumb cavalryman who researched this issue for my Master’s project for 18 months. I’ve also seen this issue from the aspects of a platoon leader, commander, staff officer, peer, friend, mentor, outpatient, and subordinate. Many units have sought different means to evaluate wellness within their organization focusing on the five dimensions of Comprehensive Soldier Fitness (spiritual, social, family, emotional, and physical). It is entirely possible (and probably likely) that there may not be a "one size fits all" solution to this issue. Further, maintaining an open mind while surveying and evaluating causation is incredibly important so as not to become susceptible to confirmation bias. Complicated issues have multi-faceted and complicated causes.
Ryan T. Kranc is a cavalryman in the United States Army currently assigned as the Regimental Operations Officer for the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment at Fort Irwin and the National Training Center, California. The views expressed in this blog post are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.