Combat stress isn’t a new phenomenon.
Combat stress isn’t a new phenomenon. Many soldiers returning from WW1 and WW2 came back with what then was called shell shock, suffering flashbacks, increased irritability, jumpiness and anxiety amongst many other symptoms, it’s what we now refer to as PTSD.
Back then it was largely brushed under the carpet with the ‘moral fiber’ of those affected questioned making it difficult to ask for help, which itself made the illness worse. Serving members of the forces during the Troubles in Northern Ireland and the Falklands War fared no better, with their physical wounds treated but their mental ones, on the whole, ignored.
Latest research and advances
However, in recent years, in light of the stories from returning military from conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan, we are, thankfully, more aware of the long term affects of the exposure to trauma whilst serving can cause.
We now know that putting our armed forces into situations of unimaginable horror and expecting them to come home unaffected by what they saw is unrealistic and greater research into this area has now come up with one way of identifying those at greatest risk of suicide.
Researchers in the US have come up with a simple blood test that in trials has identified with 80 per cent accuracy those with suicidal thoughts and 90 per cent accuracy those at severe risk of suicide, and it’s now going to be rolled out to US soldiers who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan.
What SKA2 is and how it works
The blood test works by identifying genetic changes to a specific gene called SKA2 which may be triggered by exposure to stressful situations such as combat.
Whilst we originally thought that genes were unchangeable and set in stone, over the years, it’s been shown that environmental triggers such as diet, pollution and stress, can cause small changes in our genes, with sometimes profound results.
Decreased levels of gene SKA2 has been found in those with suicidal tendencies, and whilst you can be born with a low level of this gene, it’s also been found that stress can alter the gene.
This new blood test will be able to pick up low levels in both those born with suppressed levels and those whose levels have declined through environmental factors, giving clinicians a better understanding of a person’s overall suicide risk.
This particular gene works on the area of the brain responsible for executive function, decision making and reasoning, the prefrontal cortex. When functioning normally, it should control negative thoughts and inhibit impulsive behaviour, so when it isn’t working well, it’s easy to see how a combination of uncontrolled negative thoughts combined with impulsive behaviour can lead to an increased suicide risk.
It’s believed that SKA2 affects this part of the brain by regulating the body’s response to stress hormones, if SKA 2 is damaged; it’s thought that the body can’t suppress the release of the stress hormone cortisol in the brain which is what leads to the malfunction.
Importance and next steps
This new blood test is of huge importance to the military, with suicide amongst US veterans tripling between 2002 and 2014; unfortunately the same statistics aren’t available in the UK as the government doesn’t record suicide rates for former soldiers.
For clinicians, the ability to identify those with a greater suicide risk and focus getting them help long before they might consider seeking it for themselves (if indeed they would ever seek help, for many the stigma of mental illness still remains) can only be a good thing.
Longer term there’s also the prospect of it being introduced to the population as a whole, sadly veterans aren’t the only sector of society who are exposed to trauma or at risk of suicide, and the earlier intervention occurs the better the outcome for all those affected.
What do you think of the test? Have your say in the comments section below.
Image: UK Ministry of Defence / Flickr