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Study Finds Link Between Brain Injuries and Suicide Risk in Soldiers

Update Date: May 16, 2013 09:45 AM EDT

Research into the negative side effects of head injuries has tied these types of injuries to several health complications. For professional athletes, repeated hits to the head that do not result in concussions could still impair cognitive functions, such as memory, concentration and alertness. Aside from athletes who put their bodies at risk every time they play, despite wearing helmets and gear, soldiers and military personnel are also at risk for severe brain injuries everyday in the line of duty. In a new study, researchers evaluated the potential risk factors that a traumatic brain injury could have on a soldier's brain. A traumatic brain injury is defined by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) as a bump, blow or jolt directly to the head as well as any injuries that penetrate the head. These injuries can range from mild to severe. They discovered that these types of injuries could increase one's risk of suicidal thoughts.

The research team, headed by Craig J. Bryan, interviewed 161 military personnel from Iraq who were mostly men with an average of 27-years-old. On average, they spent 6.5 years in the military. The survey aimed to identify those who might have suffered from a possible traumatic brain injury, which they called TBI. After an analysis of the surveys, the researchers concluded that TBI was tied to increasing one's risk for suicide and the higher the number of TBIs, the higher the risk factor. The team also discovered that the risk for suicide was not short-term, but rather, lasted over a year and into one's lifetime, especially if left untreated.

The team reported that one in every five military patients, representative of 21.7 percent of the sample, who suffered from more than one TBI admitted to having suicidal thoughts. The percentage of patients who reported suicidal ideation after sustaining one TBI dropped to 6.9 percent. All of the soldiers who did not experience a TBI did not have suicidal thoughts.

"Up to now, no one has been able to say if multiple TBIs, which are common among combat veterans, are associated with higher suicide risk or not," says Bryan, who is also an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Utah and associate director of the National Center for Veterans Studies. "This study suggests they are, and it provides valuable information for professionals treating wounded combat servicemen and women to help manage the risk of suicide."

Not only does this study help screen military personnel who might need therapy and counseling, the findings also revealed an increasing number of soldiers who might be at risk for suicide. Last year's percentages were 12 percent for patients with more than one TBI, 3.4 percent for patients with just one TBI and zero percent for patients without any TBI.

The study was published in JAMA Psychiatry

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