Kerry J. Ressler, MD, PhD1; Eric B. Schoomaker, MD, PhD
Although historically the Army suicide rate has been significantly lower than the civilian rate, in 2004, the suicide and accidental death rates began trending upward. By 2008, the Army suicide rate had risen above the national average (20.2 per 100,000). In 2009, 160 active duty Soldiers took their lives, making suicide the third leading cause of death among the Army population. If accidental death, frequently the result of high-risk behavior, is included, then more Soldiers died by their own actions than in combat in 2009. The Army Study to Assess Risk and Resilience in Servicemembers (Army STARRS) was thus created in 2009 to begin to address these problems. The Army STARRS project is a large consortium of seven different studies to develop data-driven methods for mitigating or preventing suicide behaviors and improving the overall mental health and behavioral functioning of Army Soldiers during and after their Army service. The first research articles from the Army STARRS project were published in late 2013 and early 2014. This work has already begun to outline important facets of risk in the military, and it is helping to drive an empirically derived approach to improvements in understanding mental disorders and risk behavior and to improve prevention and support of mental health and resilience. The Framingham Heart Study, started in the 1940s, marked a watershed event in utilizing large cross-sectional and prospective longitudinal collaborative research to identify and understand risk factors for cardiovascular disease. The Army STARRS project, through its collaborative, prospective, and robust innovative design and implementation, may provide the beginning of a similar scientific cohort in mental disorders. The work of this project will help understand biological and psychological aspects of military service, including those leading to suicide. When coupled with timely feedback to Army leadership, it permits near real-time steps to diagnose, mitigate, and manage emerging mental health issues and the root causes of risk and resilience in Army Soldiers, with potential impact extending across many traumatized populations—not unlike a parallel process that has markedly improved survival and recovery from physical combat wounds.