A study released in May 2013 by JAMA Psychiatry has been able to link traumatic brain injuries (TBI) with an increased suicide risk in military personnel. The more TBIs a person undergoes, the risk of suicidal thoughts will increase, both in the short term as well as through a person’s lifetime. This is the first study that has successfully been able to show the link between suicide risk and TBIs among the military.

Traumatic brain injuries are caused by a bump, blow or jolt to the head or a penetrating injury that interrupts brain function. The majority of TBIs are concussions or other minor head traumas. Due to the large amount of explosions and combat-related incidents in the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts, there has been an increased amount of TBIs in the military. From 2009 to 2011, 9.6% of patients from these two warzones seen at Virginia health care systems had a TBI. During the past 12 years, 266,810 military members have sustained TBIs.

In the JAMA study, researchers studied 161 military personnel who were stationed in Iraq and were seen by doctors for a possible TBI. The subjects were males around the age of 27, and had served an average of 6.5 years in the military. The criterion for TBI diagnoses was if a loss of consciousness or memory, alteration of mental state or some neurological decline or brain damage occurred or worsened after the incident.

Participants in the study were asked if they had “suicidal ideation,” or a preoccupation with thinking about suicide, at least once. One in five patients who had a TBI, approximately 21.7%, stated they had experienced suicidal thoughts. About 6.9% of the patients who had had one TBI reported having suicidal ideation at some point in their lives before the survey. Finally, of those participants who had never had a TBI, zero percent reported thinking about suicide.

Twelve months prior to when the study was conducted, 12% of individuals with multiple traumatic brain injuries claimed to have experienced suicidal ideation, with 3.4% of individuals with one TBI, and zero percent of individuals with no TBIs reporting the same behavior.

Having an increased number of traumatic brain injuries or a very serious TBI has also been linked to other psychological problems, such as depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). This study will help open the eyes of the medical personnel when assessing members of the military who have experienced a head trauma. Now, doctors and researchers will better be able to treat and understand the side effects of multiple TBIs in the military and other high impact professions.