This is an article I'd first started writing two years ago now. I did the research, and located the main, most often-cited study's principal investigator, long since retired, and asked him to confirm whether the trend is still true, though he first published it back in the 1970s. He affirmed that it was. What it is is an important and often-overlooked "connection" that will make more sense when we start describing it. It also fits into the category of things where the information is out there, but for some reason is also strangely ignored. Another instance was a few years ago, when the military kept saying, "We don't know what PTSD is tied to"; essentially, "we have no idea." Yet at the time, and this goes back several years now, I was able to read through the existing literature and learn, PTSD is tied to combat exposure. In other words, the more combat, the greater the chances of developing PTSD. And I wrote about it, here, at the time the military was saying, in essence, we don't know what it's linked to.
So it isn't that that wasn't known...it's that no one was paying attention to what was out there. (And these days, several years later, they ARE admitting publicly that more exposure = greater chance of developing PTSD. But it does make me laugh a little bit to hear that now, thinking, we were talking about it here well before that was being said publicly. And not because of some strange prophetic abilities on our part; just from reading the available literature, and drawing what seemed like obvious conclusions.)
There's the old saying that "those who refuse to learn from history are condemned to repeat it." Well, much of what's known about PTSD has been known for decades now, with another fair part of the knowledge base has been increasing exponentially. I read an article the other day about a Harvard-trained psychiatrist who worked at the V.A. in Boston during the Vietnam war, and was "shocked" to learn that there wasn't a single book on war trauma in the library there. Today, one would hope, that situation has changed quite a bit.
But to the point at hand...
As I read through my Twitter feed today (you can follow us @HealingPTSD on Twitter), I noticed several suicides being Tweeted by various sources. One was that of Mel Turpin, a former All-American basketball player and NBA star, dead at 49; and then the troubling news, especially to us in the veterans community, of a Marine Corps veteran, James F. Popkowski, 37, who apparently died in a "suicide-by-cop" or armed confrontation outside the V.A. in Bangor, Maine. (See those stories linked here and here, as well as a longer quasi-obituary of Popkowski, here.) At first the headline said only "an armed man" had died in a confrontation with police near a local VA -- and as soon as I read that, I hoped -- but yet somehow knew -- that it would be a veteran, with a painful story of his own. Later the news matured to show that in fact he was a veteran, who was struggling with this illness (cancer) and its treatment. But the fact he was a veteran and committed suicide reminded me instantly of the news from the last few days, where the Seattle Times did such a good job covering the suicide of a veteran with PTSD from Whidbey Island, Orrin McClellan. (I wrote about Orrin's life and death here and here.) So many suicides in the media, and superstitious types tend to think those run in threes -- though technically McClellan's death was in mid-May, with the coverage of it in the media happening over the last few days.
I need to branch off in two different directions here, to cover this material.
One is to talk about the V.A. suicide's statements about his own condition, because veterans with PTSD and their family members may recognize their own veterans in those words. And the other is to introduce something very different, which is the effect that media coverage of suicides has on "successful" suicide attempts by others during the same general news cycle, especially young men (who are, after all, the majority of those who serve.)
On that second point, as the military has generally speaking tried and failed to lower the suicide rate lately, I haven't seen much recognition (OK, any) of the idea that suicides are to some degree contagious. There's quite a bit of medical literature on the subject...and it's been documented in studies around the world, starting in the 1970s, that suicides reported in the news will have a demonstrated effect on increasing suicide attempts from specific populations who hear the news. Since suicide is a broad category -- many single-car or single-motorcycle accidents are also suicides -- and the military attempts periodically to crack down on motorcycle safety, etc., it would also be wise to enlarge the conversation to not only what other methods qualify as suicides, but also to take a look at how one suicide making the news can, depending on how it's portrayed, have an effect on increasing the number of other suicides that take place in the same general time frame, especially among those prone to committing suicide, because of depression and other factors. And we haven't even mentioned yet here the effect that some prescribed pharmaceutical medications can have on increasing suicidal thoughts.
(While it's somewhat unlikely that Popkowski, in Maine, was reading the Seattle Times' coverage of Orrin McClellan's death -- one, we never know; and two, in the age of the Internet, geographical barriers have disappeared and the news is instantaneous -- especially if you include other social media, like Facebook and Twitter, which can serve as additional sources of the same news. We're so much more wired now than when these studies first started being done, so we can't assume Popkowski didn't read the Seattle Times coverage, even though it's most likely that he didn't. For the sake of this argument -- because if it didn't happen with this case, it surely does with others, let's pretend that Popkowski did spend some time over the last few days reading the coverage of McClellan's suicide on the Internet.)
There's enough material to cover here that I need to go as far as I can with it now and then circle back around to it again soon. We'll introduce the science (below) but also cover what Popkowski said about his failing health, because his words will resonate with other veterans, who struggle not with cancer but with PTSD.
According to the article in the Portland, Maine Press Herald today, Popkowski, who had undergone a stem cell transplant for his cancer back in 2003 at the National Institutes of Health, struggled valiantly with the effects of the cancer and its treatment (both difficult), as well as sleep problems, depression and the like. In a letter to the editor of the magazine "New Scientist" back in 2008 he wrote,"Suicide is like a little devil, always on my shoulder and always tempting me. Concern for the care of my three dogs after I am gone, my dogs being the only things I feel anything resembling passion for, is the only thing I think that has kept me from pulling the trigger on the loaded pistol, which rests next to my pillow."
- Back in 1977, in the journal Science, DP Philips showed that "motor vehicle fatalities" (including "suicides by motor vehicle") increase in the time frame "just after publicized suicide stories." From the abstract: "The average increase in motor vehicle fatalities is 9.12 percent in the week after a suicide story. The more publicity given to the story, the greater the rise in motor vehicle deaths thereafter. This rise apparently occurs because suicide stories stimulate a wave of imitative suicides, some of which are disguised as motor vehicle accidents."
- In 2006, an Australian journal, Social Science Medicine, published a similar study, further demonstrating the "relationship between media reporting of suicide and actual suicide." They studied data on "4,635 suicide-related items appearing in Australian newspapers and on radio and television news and current affairs shows between March 2000 and February 2001. The study found that 39% of media items were followed by an increase in male suicides, and 31% by an increase in female suicides. Media items were more likely to be associated with increases in both male and female suicides if they occurred in the context of multiple other reports on suicide (versus occurring in isolation), if they were broadcast on television (versus other media), and if they were about completed suicide (versus attempted suicide or suicidal ideation). Different item content appeared to be influential for males and females, with an increase in male suicides being associated with items about an individual's experience of suicide and opinion pieces, and an increase in female suicides being associated with items about mass- or murder-suicide." They concluded, "Further research on this topic is required, but in the meantime there is a need to remain vigilant about how suicide news is reported. Mental health professionals and suicide experts should collaborate with media professionals to try to balance 'public interest' against the risk of harm."
- Versions of the original study were repeated over and over in the intervening years, and 30 years later, in 2007, the International Journal of Epidemiology published a study which showed "the influence of media reporting of the suicide of a celebrity on suicide rates," where a male television celebrity in Taiwan committed suicide, followed by a wave of somewhat "copy-cat" suicides among young men. (The "celebrity" element may initially confuse, but think of it this way -- it's a well-publicized suicide when it happens, which means it reaches most of the target audience. It also happens, according to other studies, when non-celebrities commit suicide. The distinguishing factor is how well publicized the suicide is/how much media attention or coverage is given to it. The more coverage, the more people know about it, including those in somewhat fragile populations.) Back to the study's results: "After controlling for seasonal variation, calendar year, temperature, humidity and unemployment rate, there was a marked increase in the number of suicides during the 4-week period after media reporting (relative risk = 1.17, 95% CI 1.04-1.31). The increase was in men (relative risk = 1.30, 95% CI 1.14-1.50) and for the individuals using the same highly lethal method (hanging) as the TV actor did (relative risk = 1.51, 95% CI 1.25-1.83). However, the age groups in which the increase occurred were younger than the age of the celebrity. CONCLUSIONS: The extensive media reporting of the celebrity suicide was followed by an increase in suicides with a strong implication of a modelling effect. The results provide further support for the need for more restrained reporting of suicides as part of suicide prevention strategies to decrease the imitation effect."
- Also in 2007, a study was conducted in Taiwan around the fact pattern of the same television celebrity's suicide and published in the Journal of Affective Disorders. It attempted to define the "influence of media reporting of a celebrity suicide on suicidal behavior in patients with a history of depressive disorder," and what it found was "Among 438 depressive patients exposed to the media report, 38.8% reported an influence on subsequent suicidal behaviors, including 24 (5.5%) with a suicide attempt. The risk of such influence was highest among patients in a severe depressive state just prior to the media report (adjusted OR 7.81, 95% CI 3.28-18.59). Such influence on a subsequent suicide attempt was highest in patients with a most recent suicide attempt within one month prior to the media reports (adjusted hazard ratio 11.91, 95% CI 3.76-37.72)." The authors concluded, "This study has provided more convincing evidence suggesting negative influences of media reporting of a celebrity suicide on subsequent suicidal behaviors among depressive patients. Particular attention in terms of potential negative media influences should be paid to patients who are younger and currently depressed and have made a recent suicide attempt."
- This year (2010), another Taiwanese study took a look at suicide rates after media reporting of another celebrity suicide, this time a female singing star. Their premise was that "Suicide attempters are known to be vulnerable to the influence of media reporting of suicide events. This study investigates possible influences of media reporting of a celebrity suicide on subsequent suicide attempts and associated risk factors among suicide attempters." In their study, "Sixty-three suicide attempters registered in a surveillance system of Taipei City Suicide Prevention Center were assessed using a structured interview soon after media reporting of the suicide of a young female singing star." Their results? "Forty-three (68%) respondents had encountered with the suicide news. Among them, 37% reported being influenced by the media reporting on their subsequent suicide attempts." Most hard-hit by the news? "Men (adjusted OR 6.36, 95% CI 1.29-31.44) and younger age groups (adjusted OR 4.93, 95% CI 1.04-23.45) were more susceptible to the media reporting." And the authors concluded, "This study has provided further evidence for suicide imitation among vulnerable people encountered with media reporting of celebrity suicide, and for the need to actively restrain reporting of suicides to decrease the imitation effect."
It's also true that young men -- the dominant demographic of who the all-volunteer military is these days, though approximately 11% are women -- are more prone to suicide than other age groups. Back to the science:
- According to statistics from a fact sheet on youth and violence provided by the CDC, "In 2005, 17% of high school students seriously considered attempting suicide, and 13% made a plan about how they would attempt suicide during the 12 months preceding the survey." (The reference cited is CDC. Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance - United States, 2005. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report 2006; 55 (SS-5): 1-112.)
- Similarly, according to the CDC, "approximately 14% of all deaths among children and adolescents aged 5-19 years result from suicides." The numbers climb according to age ranges, with younger children having the fewest, and older children the most. Suicided ages 10-14: 283. Suicides ages 15-19: 1,700. (The reference cited is CDC, National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, Office of Statistics and Programming. Web-based Injury Statistics Query and Reporting System (WISQARS). Online at http://www.cdc.gov/ncipc/wisqars/. Accessed September 6, 2007.)
There's more that we could talk about here -- responsible reporting guidelines about suicide, when disseminated and implemented, seem to have the effect of reducing the number of copycat suicide attempts after a successful publicized suicide (a study in Austria shows that) -- but the intended effect here, which we can elaborate on in future posts, is to introduce the idea that one publicized suicide by, say, a veteran, can also most likely encourage an increased number of suicide attempts, some of them successful, by members of at-risk populations, such as young/depressed/men. Do any of those words correlate with anyone who might be suffering from PTSD, or taking medications that might also increase suicidal thoughts? And we haven't even added into the mix the effects of alcohol, which many PTSD sufferers self-medicate with, and how that would affect suicidal thinking. There's much, much, much more to talk about on this topic -- not just here on this site but nationally -- but we hope this dense, rather convoluted post has at least gotten you thinking about not so much that we need to protect veterans with PTSD from seeing or reading the news, which might contain an item about another veteran's suicide -- but that suicides can almost go in waves (read the literature on prison populations, etc. for this), where one suicide spurs others in the same population -- because publicity surrounding a suicide has the unintended consequence of increasing suicidal tendencies in other affected people. Since many, many veterans with PTSD are to a degree on edge already...it might be good to realize the effect that reading about another veteran's demise could have on an already depressed, stressed or demoralized individual.
And since the larger goal for all of should be preventing suicides among PTSD-injured veterans, it's highly worth having this conversation.