Operation Deep Dive is a collaborative project between the University of Alabama, America’s Warrior Partnership, and the Bristol-Myers Squibb Foundation to take just that — a deep dive into the factors that lead to veteran suicide. But unlike other similar studies, Operation Deep Dive is community-based.
"Our most unique contribution is we're looking upstream at veterans and their communities," said Dr. Karl Hamner, director of the Office of Evaluation at the UA College of Education. "Social networking and community prior to when they take their own life. We want to know where they were in the community, how could we have connected them, where did we miss them, where could we have engaged them?"
Operation Deep Dive is a four-year research project. During the span of those years, Hamner and his team will study 14 different communities across the country to learn about how veterans spent their time before they died by suicide — and who they spent time with.
“Did they have a social network?” Hamner said. “Did they have friends? How close were they? What was their family connection like? Do they go to church?"
The study will also address other factors such as discharge status, access to the VA healthcare system, and environmental factors — but isolation is perhaps the main focus of the study due to its unstudied health risks.
"Loneliness has the same health risks as smoking a pack a day of cigarettes," Hamner said. "But we don't address it in public health."
The 14 communities selected to participate in Operation Deep Dive include cities with diverse characteristics, including those with high rates of veteran suicides, like Atlanta, and those with lower rates, like Houston. According to Hamner's theory, the key to suicide prevention could be waiting in those communities.
"The past few years of clinical research on suicide prevention hasn't gotten us any better at preventing suicide," Hamner said. "The treatment model waits for people to come to them. We need to get out in the community. What are the angles for prevention? How do we understand that person's path?"
At the end of the project, Operation Deep Dive hopes to be able to offer prevention plans to communities.
"We want to be able to come back to these communities and say here is your pattern of veteran suicide — and here's how we prevent it."