What can be done to stem the rise of military suicides?

June 11, 2018 by Marc Ballon, University of Southern California
USC researchers want to predict patterns that could indicate depression or suicidal thoughts are increasing. Credit: Photo/Stocksy

As suicide rates among active-duty service members and veterans continue to outpace rates among the general population, researchers from the USC Viterbi School of Engineering and the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work have joined forces to use technology to identify, as early as possible, those at risk.

The collaboration, as part of the USC Center for Artificial Intelligence in Society, or USC CAIS, is believed to be one of the first of its kind to use artificial intelligence to model the strength or weakness of military personnel's social networks to ascertain suicidal thinking, depression and anxiety. The work by the USC interdisciplinary research team will be supported by a $600,000 grant from the Army Research Office.

"The hypothesis is that we are going to be able to capture, via machine learning, some patterns that show when a certain set of changes in the social network happens over a certain period of time that might be an indicator of ," said Milind Tambe, a professor of computer science, co-founder of CAIS and holder of the Helen N. and Emmett H. Jones Professorship in Engineering.

Military suicides: rates

An estimated 8,000 military veterans commit suicide every year, according to a 2012 report issued by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Additionally, one active-duty member kills himself or herself every 36 hours, according to 2010 statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Team members hope to use the lessons learned from their study to increase early interventions for at-risk and veterans facing acute stress during transitional moments. The members include Tambe; Eric Rice, USC CAIS co-founder and associate professor in ; Carl Castro, associate professor, retired U.S. Army colonel and director for the USC Center for Innovation and Research on Veterans & Military Families; and Phebe Vayanos, an assistant professor of industrial and systems engineering and computer science and associate director of USC CAIS.

The transistional moments include deployment, returning home from service, joining and leaving the military, and transferring to a different duty assignment in the U.S. and abroad.

"If we could collect data on people over a period of time, we could look at changes in their social networks to understand when and where and at what moments people become more at risk of suicide," Rice said.

Researchers are working with the Army to identify 200 to 300 soldiers they could follow for one year, hopefully beginning this summer. Researchers would survey and interview the cohort during soldiers' six-month deployments and then follow up every month for another six months back home, Rice said.

The team would evaluate how much they continue to engage with battalion members back in the U.S., how well they reintegrate with their families, the challenges soldiers face when transitioning to civilian life and what happens if one's social network of friends and loved one atrophies, among other areas of inquiry.

Disposed to depression and substance abuse

Military personnel seem more disposed to depression, substance abuse and suicidal thoughts than the , Castro said.

"Military life is hard for a variety of reasons, including an increased exposure to trauma, frequent moves that disrupt one's social support networks and prolonged separations due to deployments," he said. "Further, the physical nature of the military leads to chronic musculoskeletal injuries, resulting in chronic pain that service members treat through self-medication, which can lead to addictions."

As a "proof of concept," Rice said, the USC CAIS team will begin using information, collected between 2011 and 2014 for another project, to look at suicidal thinking among homeless youth. Rice said he has rich data on 1,046 Los Angeles homeless youth. Like veterans and active-duty personnel, homeless young people have higher suicide rates, self-contained social networks and are considered "special populations," he added.

With both projects, machine learning could make the algorithms smarter over time and save lives in the process, Tambe said.

"In the future, the machine might be able to make some predictions about what a danger sign might be," he said. "We don't expect this to be perfect, but, hopefully, it will give us some hints about where we might be able to offer some assistance or strategically focused interventions."

Explore further: Trauma before enlistment linked to high suicide rates among military personnel, veterans

Related Stories

Trauma before enlistment linked to high suicide rates among military personnel, veterans

August 9, 2014
High rates of suicide among military service members and veterans may be related to traumatic experiences they had before enlisting, making them more vulnerable to suicidal behavior when coping with combat and multiple deployments, ...

Among active duty military, Army personnel most at risk for violent suicide

June 6, 2016
A study of rates and predictors of suicide among active duty enlisted service members found that Army personnel were most at risk for violent suicide. Firearms were determined to be the primary cause of suicide death across ...

Military personnel seeking mental health care outside of the military

February 27, 2018
A new article in Military Medicine, published by Oxford University Press, indicates that military personnel are making extensive use of outside mental health services, suggesting that military health and mental health services ...

Increased prevalence of depression, PTSD and medical conditions among military personnel who experience trauma

May 7, 2018
Service members who experience trauma, including sexual trauma, during their service are at increased risk of major depressive disorder, posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and chronic medical conditions, according to new ...

Married veterans more at risk of suicide than single soldiers

January 23, 2018
Among recently returned veterans, a new study says those who are married or living with a partner are at higher suicide risk than soldiers who are single, and older married female veterans are at the greatest risk.

For suicidal veterans, loneliness is the deadliest enemy

September 29, 2017
About 20 veterans commit suicide every day. The primary enemy most veterans face after service is not war-related trauma but loneliness, according to a new study by researchers at Yale and the U.S. Department of Veterans ...

Recommended for you

Suicide risk in abused teen girls linked to mother-daughter conflict

October 18, 2018
Teenage girls who were maltreated as children are more likely to entertain suicidal thoughts if the relationship with their mother is poor and the degree of conflict between the two of them high.

Study shows how bias can influence people estimating the ages of other people

October 17, 2018
A trio of researchers from the University of New South Wales and Western Sydney University has discovered some of the factors involved when people make errors in estimating the ages of other people. In their paper published ...

Infants are more likely to learn when with a peer

October 16, 2018
Infants are more likely to learn from on-screen instruction when paired with another infant as opposed to viewing the lesson alone, according to a new study.

Researchers use brain cells in a dish to study genetic origins of schizophrenia

October 16, 2018
A study in Biological Psychiatry has established a new analytical method for investigating the complex genetic origins of mental illnesses using brain cells that are grown in a dish from human embryonic stem cells. Researchers ...

Income and wealth affect the mental health of Australians, study shows

October 16, 2018
Australians who have higher incomes and greater wealth are more likely to experience better mental health throughout their lives, new research led by the Bankwest Curtin Economics Centre has found.

Study suggests biological basis for depression, anxiety, sleep disturbances in older adults

October 15, 2018
UC San Francisco researchers, in collaboration with the unique Brazilian Biobank for Aging Studies (BBAS) at the University of São Paulo, have shown that the earliest stages of the brain degeneration associated with Alzheimer's ...


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.