Experiencing child abuse, being sexually victimized and exhibiting suicidal behavior before enlisting are significant risk factors for suicide, according to recent studies from the National Center for Veterans Studies at the University of Utah.

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WASHINGTON — The high suicide rates among military veterans and current servicemembers may be more likely a result of past traumatic experiences rather than combat and multiple deployments, suggest new findings presented Saturday at the American Psychological Association's annual convention.

Experiencing child abuse, being sexually victimized and exhibiting suicidal behavior before enlisting are significant risk factors for suicide, according to recent studies from the National Center for Veterans Studies at the University of Utah.

Findings show that traumatic experiences before military service make current and former military personnel more vulnerable to suicidal behavior. Examples include:

• Soldiers who reported abuse as children were three to eight times more likely than those who were not abused to report suicidal behavior;

• Servicemembers and veterans who attempted suicide before joining the military were six times more likely to attempt suicide after entering the service than those who had never attempted suicide.

Through various studies using different data from all branches of the military, the researchers found a common thread of prior trauma.

"Premilitary experiences predict a lot of current and perhaps future behavior," says retired Army colonel James Griffith, a psychologist who presented research on child abuse, which, he says, is a significant suicide risk factor for civilians as well.

In his study using 2010 Army survey data from 12,567 Army National Guard soldiers, Griffith found that 16% of respondents reported harsh punishment during childhood and 8% reported physical abuse; similar findings are reported in studies of active-duty Army soldiers.

"Experiencing abuse early in life may lead to a tendency to perceive and experience stressful events as catastrophic and insurmountable," he says. "This may lead to less ability to handle future stressful circumstances."

Sexual trauma also increases the risk of suicidal behavior, researchers say, so they compared the suicide risk from military sexual trauma to that involving civilian sexual trauma. They surveyed 426 servicemembers and veterans enrolled in college classes and found that more than 25% of women and 4% of men reported sexual trauma in the military — a prevalence similar to sexual victimization in both the general U.S. population and college student population.

Work presented by researcher AnnaBelle Bryan outlined past suicide thoughts and attempts among servicemembers and veterans before entering the military; about half had thought about suicide and one-quarter had attempted it prior to their military service.

"Having thoughts about suicide and having a suicide attempt for the first time in your life before joining the military was associated with significant increased risk for suicide attempt during the military," she says. "A considerable proportion of military suicide behaviors occur among those with preexisting conditions or risks."

Suicide is the second-leading cause of death among U.S. military personnel, according to data from the Department of Defense. In 2012, there were 319 suicides among active-duty members and 203 among Reserve forces, compared with 237 combat-related deaths of active-duty servicemembers in Afghanistan during that same period.

"Combat exposure and deployment at times may be a risk factor, but it's relatively low in comparison to these other demographic characteristics. That war causes an extreme amount of distress, which leads to suicide -- I believe that's questionable, given some of the results that we have," Griffith says.

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