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Rudd is convinced that the way the nation wages war and the nature of these wars — guerilla warfare where warriors often can’t tell the difference between combatants and civilians — is to blame.
"One of the primary shifts from World War II to Vietnam to the current wars is that psychological injury is undeniably the most significant consequence at war," Rudd says. "[It] impacts far more veterans than any other kind of injury today."
In addition, there’s a perceived conflict between military values — loyalty, service, sacrifice and obligation — and asking for help with mental health issues.
"People really view it as a personal failure or weakness. The [military] culture hasn’t really accepted the issue in a meaningful way."
Bryan notes that suicide research has always been poorly funded, particularly given that suicide is one of the top 10 causes of death in the United States and the second leading cause for young people.
The DoD and VA-funded research under way in the past decade, however, will advance the entire mental health profession, he says.
"We’re now getting to the point where we can show all the money spent is actually making a difference in soldiers’ lives," says Bryan, who served as an Air Force psychologist from 2005 to 2009, the last year in Iraq.
"What we learn here in these next few years as these studies wrap up is going to actually shape the way mental health care [civilian and military] is delivered."
Probing soldiers’ pain » Bryan created a splash earlier this summer when he delivered a paper at a DoD conference, sharing research that affirms common wisdom: Soldiers try to kill themselves to end psychological pain.
He used data from interviews with 72 soldiers who are part of a larger treatment project Rudd has had under way at Fort Carson, Colo., for nearly three years. It is nearing an end and initial results are promising.
To a person, the 72 soldiers said they tried to commit suicide or were suicidal because they wanted "to stop bad feelings."
"This provides… scientific backing that will help commanders and other service members understand this is not someone trying to get out of something," he says. The paper has been accepted for publication in the Journal of Affective Disorders.
While 10 percent of the soldiers said their suicide attempts were partially motivated by a desire to avoid an assignment or other issues, they also reported that they just wanted to end the suffering, Bryan says.
"His findings show conclusively that we must focus on addressing the suicide and distress causing it," says Castro.
Bryan’s next research project will try to assess which treatment works best as a brief, intense intervention when a suicidal service member appears in an emergency room.
The field, he says, is gratifying, particularly when one sees success in treatment.
"You see people move from sheer agony. There is nothing more exhilarating than to help someone move from this dark place, to ‘Things are going to be OK.’ "
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