Florida State to help military wage war on suicide

Professor of Psychology Thomas Joiner
Professor of Psychology Thomas Joiner

American soldiers are taking their own lives in the largest numbers since the military began keeping records, and the Department of Defense has enlisted the help of The Florida State University in waging the war against suicide.

A $17 million federal grant has been awarded to FSU and the Denver Veterans Affairs Medical Center to establish the Military Suicide Research Consortium. The consortium is the first of its kind to integrate DOD and civilian efforts in implementing a multidisciplinary research approach to suicide prevention.

Florida State’s Robert O. Lawton Distinguished Professor Thomas Joiner, an internationally known suicide researcher, and Peter Gutierrez, a leading suicide expert and clinical/research psychologist with the VA’s Mental Illness Research, Education and Clinical Center at the Denver VA Medical Center, will lead the consortium. Each institution will receive $8.5 million in initial funding over the next three years.

The new consortium comes as the military struggles with a surging suicide rate that now exceeds the rate of suicide in the general population. More than 1,100 members of the armed forces died by suicide from 2005 to 2009 — that’s more than the total number of servicemen and women killed in Afghanistan since the war began in 2001 — and suicides are rising again this year, according to a new task force report ordered by Congress.

"These suicides have deeply affected the military leadership, and they are desperate to do something about it," Joiner said. "For many in the military, they never knew the misery of suicide, and now they do. They are agonizing over this. They say it hurts every bit as much as losing someone in combat, maybe more."

Despite the new trend of suicide in the military, very little medical research has actually been done on the subject, said Joiner, who is also the Bright-Burton Professor of Psychology and a Distinguished Research Professor of Psychology at FSU. There’s no doubt that the trauma of combat in Afghanistan and Iraq plays a role, but that doesn’t explain why some soldiers take their own lives and others who share the same experience don’t.

"Soldiers see a lot of violence, they see death, they see the people who are closest to them in the world get killed, and they themselves are often seriously injured," Joiner said. "That’s part of it, but that’s true of all of them, so why some and not others?"

Joiner and Gutierrez are exploring that question in order to develop better assessment tools to identify those at greatest risk and testing interventions in order to save lives.

"Assessing those at risk for suicide has been the focus of extensive research in the civilian sector," Gutierrez said. "However, very little is currently known about how relevant existing tools are when applied to the military. This consortium will allow us to determine how best to screen and assess personnel, develop effective interventions and ultimately to reduce suicides."

The U.S. Army Medical Research and Materiel Command Military Operational Medicine Research Program (MOMRP) established the consortium to coordinate and focus research efforts across the DOD and all branches of the military. The MOMRP is a unique biomedical research program that focuses on providing biomedical solutions that protect soldiers and enhance their performance in operational and training environments.

"We want to develop a comprehensive approach to prevent suicide and improve mental health outcomes for men and women in uniform," said Col. Carl Castro, director of the MOMRP.

Castro said the consortium aims to yield new scientific data on suicidal behavior in the military and to provide the scientific basis for policy recommendations and clinical practice guidelines.

Building an integrated digital library of suicide research will be key to the consortium’s effort to provide and disseminate information. Florida State School of Library and Information Studies Professor Greg Riccardi will head the effort to collect, analyze and organize research publications that are relevant to suicidal behavior in the military and develop a rapid response system to provide information to policymakers and others.

"Officials want to have a fast and accurate way of searching for the resources that will allow them to make informed decisions," Riccardi said. "We will be creating a warehouse of all available research information relevant to suicidal behavior and a search system that will allow people to pose questions about specific areas of interest and to receive ranked lists of relevant information resources. The system will be continually updated as new information becomes available."

Florida State Professor Richard Wagner, Professor Chris Schatschneider and Associate Professor Jon Maner, all of the psychology department, and statistics Professor Daniel McGee also are members of the consortium and will provide data analysis and consulting.