The Relationship Between Divorce and Suicide in the Military

Last week, I received a phone call from a childhood friend who is a Marine Corps Officer. He told me that another man whom he was deployed with a few years earlier recently took his life. My friend expressed anger, sadness, frustration and regret. He proceeded to tell me that a number of fellow Marines that he has served with have taken their own lives in the last few¬† years. The first question I asked him was if his friend was divorced. “He was in the process of it,” he responded.

When I talk to law enforcement professionals*, members of the military and veterans about PTSD, depression and suicide, I always ask about alcohol/drug use and divorce because both of them are positively correlated with suicide (you should keep these two questions in the back of your mind, whenever you read or hear about a suicide attempt).

In the last several years, the military has been doing a better job about spreading the awareness of PTSD, depression and suicide among service members and veterans. However, they are not addressing alcohol abuse (misuse, dependence…you can pick your own clinical wording) and relationship problems nearly enough. During a month-long training for Army medical professionals this summer, my class was repeatedly told “if you are married, stay married.” This was particularly in reference to weekend activities. At no point were relationships and marriage discussed in depth. No attention was given to time spent together, communication, fair fighting, family planning or overcoming adversity together.

Marriage is difficult – it takes a lot of continual work. A lot of people take their partner for granted or say things like, “I don’t want to have to work at my relationship.” The stark reality though is that it takes constant work; some are far better at it than others (there are those that say they correct their mistakes in a second marriage, but the statistics are pretty clear that the divorce rate for second marriages is higher than for first ones). People have different needs and expectations, and they grow and change at different rates. Add in job stress, health problems, deployment, financial issues, kids, or perhaps a substance abuse problem, and the chances of marital difficulties, separation and/or divorce increase. Service members lives are often rife with the aforementioned problems.

Addressing relationships in the military requires a change in policy. It means early and ongoing instruction/support. There are existing family programs and support groups, but they are clearly not working. We need more therapists that are working with the military (both as embedded military members and as civilians) that help them learn how to select partners, have quality relationships, fight fairly and work through difficulties. I believe that this will reduce suicide attempts by service members and veterans.

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* I recently had lunch with a number of law enforcement officials. We got to talking about PTSD, depression and suicide in their profession. I asked them what was the percentage of divorce in their field. While they couldn’t give me a global figure, they told me that their organization had a 70-75% 1st marriage divorce rate. Those that are divorced, they said, have higher rates of alcohol problems and suicide.