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Military Culture and the Transition to Civilian Life: Suicide Risk and Other Considerations

Suicide among active duty military members and veterans has increased in the wake of the two international conflicts, surpassing those of the general population for the first time since Vietnam. Recent research has identified the period of separation from the military as a period of elevated risk, regardless of deployment history. Although the association between deployment and suicide is not clear-cut, studies have shown that the transition to civilian life for Operation Enduring Freedom/Operation Iraqi Freedom (OEF/OIF) veterans who served in combat can be particularly difficult, with over 50 percent describing the readjustment to civilian life as a “real struggle”.  A successful transition is challenging to returning soldiers for many reasons, including the dissonance between military and civilian cultures.

Returning from many years of military service has similarities to the culture shock experienced by immigrants when they first arrive in the United States: “There is the disorientation, change of status, and a search for identity and meaning”. These adjustment issues may also be viewed within the context of assimilating back into the individualistic U.S. society, lacking the close bonds and collectivist value system experienced in the military. This can potentially foster feelings of separateness when veterans transition to civilian life if the particular circumstances are such that they lack a sufficient social support system, or if they lack a shared experience with those systems. For instance, a recent report by Pietrzak, Johnson, Goldstein, Malley, and Southwick (2009) found that social support for OEF/OIF veterans during the transition to civilian life was negatively associated with suicidal ideation. Lemaire and Graham (2011) had similar findings in that sufficient social support.

Download this full research article by James L. Pease, PhD, clinician in psychiatric services, Veterans Affairs, Veterans Integrated Services Network, Eastern Colorado Health Care System, Denver.

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