The Army Study to Assess Risk and Resilience in Servicemembers (Army STARRS)

Robert J. Ursano, M.D.; Lisa J. Colpe, Ph.D., MPH; Steven G. Heeringa, Ph.D.; Ronald C. Kessler, Ph.D.; Michael Schoenbaum, Ph.D.; Murray B. Stein, M.D., MPH; On behalf of the Army STARRS collaborators

Importance/Objective: Although the suicide rate in the U.S. Army has traditionally been below age-gender matched civilian rates, it has climbed steadily since the beginning of the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts and since 2008 has exceeded the demographically matched civilian rate. The Army Study to Assess Risk and Resilience in Servicemembers (Army STARRS) is a multicomponent epidemiological and neurobiological study designed to generate actionable evidence-based recommendations to reduce Army suicides and increase knowledge about risk and resilience factors for suicidality and its psychopathological correlates. This paper presents an overview of the Army STARRS component study designs and of recent findings.

Design/Setting/Participants/Intervention: Army STARRS includes six main component studies: (1) the Historical Administrative Data Study (HADS) of Army and Department of Defense (DoD) administrative data systems (including records of suicidal behaviors) for all soldiers on active duty 2004–2009 aimed at finding administrative record predictors of suicides; (2) retrospective case-control studies of fatal and nonfatal suicidal behaviors (each planned to have n = 150 cases and n = 300 controls); (3) a study of new soldiers (n = 50,765 completed surveys) assessed just before beginning basic combat training (BCT) with self-administered questionnaires (SAQ), neurocognitive tests, and blood samples; (4) a cross-sectional study of approximately 35,000 (completed SAQs) soldiers representative of all other (i.e., exclusive of BCT) active duty soldiers; (5) a pre-post deployment study (with blood samples) of soldiers in brigade combat teams about to deploy to Afghanistan (n = 9,421 completed baseline surveys), with sub-samples assessed again one, three, and nine months after returning from deployment; and (6) a pilot study to follow-up SAQ respondents transitioning to civilian life. Army/DoD administrative data are being linked prospectively to the large-scale survey samples to examine predictors of subsequent suicidality and related mental health outcomes.

Main outcome measures: Measures (self-report and administratively recorded) of suicidal behaviors and their psychopathological correlates.

Results: Component study cooperation rates are comparatively high. Sample biases are relatively small. Inefficiencies introduced into parameter estimates by using nonresponse adjustment weights and time-space clustering are small. Initial findings show that the suicide death rate, which rose over 2004–2009, increased for those deployed, those never deployed, and those previously deployed. Analyses of administrative records show that those deployed or previously deployed were at greater suicide risk. Receiving a waiver to enter the Army was not associated with increased risk. However, being demoted in the past two years was associated with increased risk. Time in current deployment, length of time since return from most recent deployment, total number of deployments, and time interval between most recent deployments (known as dwell time) were not associated with suicide risk. Initial analyses of survey data show that 13.9% of currently active non-deployed regular Army soldiers considered suicide at some point in their lifetime, while 5.3% had made a suicide plan, and 2.4% had attempted suicide. Importantly, 47–60% of these outcomes first occurred prior to enlistment. Prior mental disorders, in particular major depression and intermittent explosive disorder, were the strongest predictors of these self-reported suicidal behaviors. Most onsets of plans-attempts among ideators (58.3–63.3%) occurred within the year of onset of ideation. About 25.1% of non-deployed U.S. Army personnel met 30-day criteria for a DSM-IV anxiety, mood, disruptive behavior, or substance disorder (15.0% an internalizing disorder; 18.4% an externalizing disorder) and 11.1% for multiple disorders. Importantly, three-fourths of these disorders had pre-enlistment onsets.

Conclusions: Integration across component studies creates strengths going well beyond those in conventional applications of the same individual study designs. These design features create a strong methodological foundation from which Army STARRS can pursue its substantive research goals. The early findings reported here illustrate the importance of the study and its approach as a model of studying rare events particularly of national security concern. Continuing analyses of the data will inform suicide prevention for the U.S. Army.

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