Recent studies indicate that the harmful effects of a traumatic brain injury are more severe when there have been previous brain injuries, and the life altering damage from multiple TBIs can lead to suicide immediately after the event or even years later.

Study Links Multiple TBIs with Suicide

Craig Bryan, assistant professor of psychology at the University of Utah and associate director of the National Center for Veterans Studies, studying active-duty soldiers in Iraq in 2009, gathered data about their suicidal thoughts after returning to base with traumatic brain injuries. Bryan’s study, published in the medical journal JAMA Psychiatry in 2013, found that one in five patients, about 22 percent, who had experienced more than one traumatic brain injury (TBI) reported thoughts or preoccupation with suicide, compared to 6 percent of patients with only one TBI.

Soldiers in Bryan’s study with multiple TBIs were injured either in previous deployments or before enlistment, with some reporting as many as six sports related head injuries before enlisting. About 20 percent of service members sustained concussions during basic training. While deployed, some service members experienced as many as 15 TBIs, usually in an IED attack.

The Defense Department has estimated that 266,810 of the 1.6 million service members who served in Iraq and Afghanistan received a traumatic brain injury between 2000 and 2012. A 2008 Rand Corporation study estimated the number of TBIs much higher at 400,000. All five branches of the service have dealt with high suicide rates in recent years. In 2011, 303 active-duty service members killed themselves, and in 2012 the number increased to 349. Considering those statistics, a soldier is more likely to die from suicide than from war injuries.

Risk of Suicide Greater with Mild TBI

Bryan said his data and other studies also suggest that mild head injuries tend to be more likely to lead to suicidal thoughts than more severe ones, possibly because those who sustain a mild TBI don’t take time for a complete recovery. Although the military screens all at-risk service members for concussions, according to its protocol for handling TBI, those with mild head injuries return to the field within five days. Bryan concluded that the military needs to allow more time for recovery and do more to screen those with TBIs for personal risk factors for suicide.

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