Suicide rates have risen in the United States over the past decade, after declining over the previous 10 years. This spring, a study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed a sharp increase in suicide among middle-age Americans, with the rate rising by almost 30 percent for people ages 35 to 64 between 1999 and 2010.
Many societal factors, including the long-term economic downturn and greater access to opioid drugs such as OxyContin, may help explain the increase, CDC researchers told The New York Times.
Meanwhile, rates of suicide among younger people have leveled off, suggesting that prevention efforts, which have traditionally targeted young adults and the elderly, have had some positive effects, said Robert Gebbia, president of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP), which is coordinating the World Suicide Prevention Day events in the United States.
Today’s events, occurring in at least 60 countries, range from public awareness activities to seminars and walks for survivors. Hundreds of thousands of organizations, including local hospitals, psychiatric units, crisis centers and hotlines, are taking part.”
The so-called ‘psychotically depressed’ person who tries to kill herself doesn’t do so out of quote ‘hopelessness’ or any abstract conviction that life’s assets and debits do not square. And surely not because death seems suddenly appealing. The person in whom Its invisible agony reaches a certain unendurable level will kill herself the same way a trapped person will eventually jump from the window of a burning high-rise. Make no mistake about people who leap from burning windows. Their terror of falling from a great height is still just as great as it would be for you or me standing speculatively at the same window just checking out the view; i.e. the fear of falling remains a constant. The variable here is the other terror, the fire’s flames: when the flames get close enough, falling to death becomes the slightly less terrible of two terrors. It’s not desiring the fall; it’s terror of the flames. And yet nobody down on the sidewalk, looking up and yelling ‘Don’t!’ and ‘Hang on!’, can understand the jump. Not really. You’d have to have personally been trapped and felt flames to really understand a terror way beyond falling.
David Foster Wallace
Deaths by self-inflicted injuries per 100,000 inhabitants (WHO Disease and injury country estimates).
Lithuania, Guyana, Japan, and Hungary have the highest rates, while the countries with the greatest absolute numbers of suicides are China and India, which account for over half the total (in the former, suicide is the 5th leading cause of death).
Globally, as of 2008/2009, suicide is the 10th leading cause of death, with about 800,000 to 1,000,000 people dying annually. Rates of suicide have increased by 60% over the last 50 years, with these increases seen primarily in the developing world. For every suicide that results in death there are between 10 and 40 attempted suicide
After the Vietnam War, 38% of American veterans suffered failed marriages within 6 months of their return; the divorce rate was twice as high for vets diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Indeed, Vietnam War veterans in particular are 69% more likely to have their marriages fail than other vets.
Army records show that 65% of active-duty suicides — which now outnumber combat deaths — are precipitated by broken relationships; as for veterans of all conflicts, one of them commit suicide every 80 minutes. Indeed, while veterans make up 7% of the population, they account for 20% of all suicides.
What’s worse is that the spouses and children of a parent who commits suicide is consequently 3 times more likely to end their lives as well, meaning that veteran families are at risk as well.
I have no data on veterans from other countries involved in the conflict (including Vietnam itself, and allies like Australia, New Zealand, Thailand, and the like).
One aspect of [suicide] survivors’ personalities that appears to have been left behind is whatever mind-tumble caused them to try to kill themselves in the first place. Since their attempts, none of the survivors I spoke with had experienced another impulse toward suicide. Nor had they spent much time seeing psychologists or hanging out in support groups. In Baldwin’s case, he attended just five therapy sessions after his jump from the Golden Gate.
“And after that fifth session,” he recalled, “the therapist said: ‘You know, I really don’t think you need to do this anymore. You seem to have it all put back together.’ And he was right.”
For each, it’s almost as if their near-death experience scared them straight, propelled them back to a point of recovery beyond even their own imagining. But that’s actually not so unusual; just as Seiden found that less than 10 percent of people thwarted from jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge went on to kill themselves, a host of studies show that same percentage holds among those who carry out “near fatal” attempts but somehow survive. Beginning in the 1970s, Dr. David Rosen, a psychiatrist and Jungian psychoanalyst, tracked down and conducted lengthy interviews with nine people who survived leaps from the Golden Gate, as well as one who had gone off the nearby Bay Bridge.
“What was immediately apparent,” Rosen recounted, “was that none of them had truly wanted to die. They had wanted their inner pain to stop; they wanted some measure of relief; and this was the only answer they could find. They were in spiritual agony, and they sought a physical solution.”
Starting in 1993, the scientists followed over 1,400 children at three different ages — 9, 11 and 13, and interviewed them and their caregivers every year until the kids turned 16.
Based on the interviews, they categorized the kids into four groups: victims only, bullies only, both bullies and victims, or neither. To determine the long-term effects of bullying, the researchers re-interviewed the participants when they were ages 19, 21, 24 and 26, and evaluted them for a wide range of different psychiatric disorders.
“Bullying is not just a part of childhood, or some sort of a harmless activity between peers. This is actually something that has very detrimental, and very long lasting effects,” says study author William Copeland of Duke University Medical Center in Durham, North Carolina.
All three groups who reported being involved in bullying experienced some long-term psychiatric effects in the form of anxiety, depressive, or antisocial personality disorders, or some type of alcohol or marijuana abuse. After controlling for family hardships that might also make these mental health issues more likely, the researchers found distinct patterns of psychiatric problems that distinguished the bullies from their victims.
Victims of bullying were nearly three times as likely to have issues with generalized anxiety as those who were not bullied, and 4.6 times as likely to suffer from panic attacks, or agoraphobia, in which they felt trapped or had no escape, compared to those who were spared bullying.
Bullies themselves showed a four times higher risk of antisocial personality disorder as adults compared to those who did not bully others, and children who reported being both bullies and victims seemed to fare the worst of all; these participants showed a nearly five times greater risk of depression as young adults compared to those who had not both given and received bullying behavior, and a 14.5 times greater risk of having a panic disorder.
These effects also showed some gender differences; women had a dramatically higher risk, at nearly 27 times, of having agoraphobia, while men showed an 18.5 times greater prevalence of suicidal tendencies.
“For bullies, it’s a completely different kind of problem,” says Copeland. “With the victims, it is all related to their emotional functioning. For the bullies, they had higher rates of antisocial personality disorder, which is kind of related to criminal behavior, so they’re having completely different problems in adulthood than the victims.”
And that’s not the most distressing part:
“There is a perception that we have a veterans’ suicide epidemic on our hands. I don’t think that is true,” said Robert Bossarte, an epidemiologist with the VA who did the study. “The rate is going up in the country, and veterans are a part of it.” The number of suicides overall in the United States increased by nearly 11 percent between 2007 and 2010, the study says.
We know today that the phenomenon of “suicide contagion” is real. Numerous studies have demonstrated that one suicide within a community can spark others. The mechanisms of suicide contagion are not well understood, but there’s substantial evidence that the media plays a major role as a suicide vector. A 2008 World Health Organization report is unequivocal: “Over 50 investigations into imitative suicides have been conducted. Systematic reviews of these studies have consistently drawn the same conclusion: media reporting of suicide can lead to imitative suicidal behaviours.”
According to the World Health Organization, the likelihood of imitative suicides resulting from media coverage varies, depending in part on “the amount and prominence of coverage, with repeated coverage and ‘high impact’ stories being most strongly associated with imitative behaviours. It is accentuated when the person described in the story and the reader or viewer are similar in some way….Particular subgroups in the population (e.g., young people, people suffering from depression) may be especially vulnerable to engaging in imitative suicidal behaviours… [and] overt description of suicide by a particular method may lead to increases in suicidal behaviour employing that method.”
The plenitude of studies documenting a media version of “the Werther effect” have led many organizations to promulgate “best practices” for media reporting on suicide. The National Institute for Mental Health (NIMH), for instance, urges media organizations to avoid “Big or sensationalistic headlines, or prominent placement” of stories about suicide, and avoid using such terms as “epidemic,” “skyrocketing,” and so on when discussing suicide trends. Similarly, the World Health Organization warns that “Prominent placement and undue repetition of stories about suicide are more likely to lead to imitative behaviours than more subtle presentations.”
NIMH also urges media to avoid “Including photos/videos of the location or method of death, grieving family, friends, memorials or funerals,” since this can both lead others to identify more with the suicide victim — thus increasing the likelihood of copycat behavior — or lead people to focus on the idea that suicide will lead to positive attention (“After I’m gone, they’ll finally appreciate me…”). The CDC concurs, noting that “News coverage is less likely to contribute to suicide contagion when reports of community expressions of grief (e.g., public eulogies, flying flags at half-mast, and erecting permanent public memorials) are minimized. Such actions may contribute to suicide contagion by suggesting to susceptible persons that society is honoring the suicidal behavior of the deceased person…”
Rosa Brooks, The Contagion Effect.
It’s interesting to note that most humans involved in the taking a human life, even when not at fault, become horribly affected by it. That says something about our nature.
There has always been a stigma attached to mental illness, but even with the advancement of medical science and our far greater understanding of the how the mind and brain function, psychological problems are often dismissed as the product of a weak mind or poor upbringing (i.e. people who committed suicide are too sensitive, depressed people need to suck it up, etc). While one’s social environment, among other things, can certainly be an influence, it’s not the whole story.
So while it is true that there is still a lot to learn, and that misdiagnoses and medical malfeasance complicate matters, mental illness is not as spurious as people make it out to be.
I know it’s odd to publish a post about someone’s death this belatedly, but I had no idea that this wonderful man had passed on, and I think he deserves a posthumous mention. Also known as the “Angel of the Gap,” this brave and compassionate Australian devoted more than half his life to saving people from attempting to end their lives by jumping off a cliff near his home. News.com reports:
Mr Ritchie spent 50 years coaxing desperate people back from The Gap, the notorious cliff at Watsons Bay where hundreds have died or thought about taking their lives.
He helped save 500 despairing souls – usually with little more than compassion, a warm smile and a hot cuppa.
“Those who knew him knew he was a very strong person and a very capable person,” Mr Ritchie’s daughter Sue said today.
Federal MP Malcolm Turnbull, whose electorate includes The Gap, added: “A true hero, one of our greatest Australians. RIP.”
Born in Vaucluse in 1926, Mr Ritchie died peacefully at home on Old South Head Road, Watsons Bay yesterday.
The former navy seaman turned life insurance salesman was never one to shout about his exploits.
He helped because he could.
Ms Ritchie said: “It was just something that he saw and that he had to do something about.”
New South Wales Mental Health Minister Kevin Humphries recalled when Mr Ritchie was named a Local Hero in the 2011 Australian of the Year Awards.
“Upon accepting the award Mr Ritchie urged people to never be afraid to speak to those most in need,” he said.
“Always remember the power of the simple smile, a helping hand, a listening ear and a kind word.”
A funeral will be held in Sydney on Friday.
As humble and simple as he was altruistic. The Global Post offered a more detailed account of his exploits, though it’s unfortunate that so few major media outlets mentioned him much before or after he died.
In his earlier years, Ritchie would physically restrain people from jumping off the cliff while his wife called the police, UPI reported. However, as he got older, he would simply offer distraught people at the edge of the Gap a cup of tea and someone to talk to.
Father Tony Doherty from Rose Bay Parish and a good friend of Ritchie’s told ABC News about the first time he saw Don literally talk someone off the ledge.
“I watched this figure gradually encourage [a man] to come back to the safety of the cliff,” said Father Doherty. “He has this wonderful soft, appealing voice that encouraged this little fellow not to jump.”
Ritchie won numerous community awards and a Medal of the Order of Australia for his efforts, and was named an Australian local hero of the year in 2011, according to the Telegraph. He also received gifts, Christmas cards, and letters from those he saved, sometimes a decade or two later, the Telegraph reported.
“Those who knew him knew he was a very strong person and a very capable person,” Ritchie’s daughter Sue told AAP News on Monday. ”It was just something that he saw and that he had to do something about.”
However, Ritchie was not always successful in his attempts to stop suicides, according to the Telegraph. He saw several people jump, including one instance where he spoke to a quiet young man who “just kept looking straight ahead,” Ritchie told The Sydney Morning Herald in 2009.
“I was talking to him for about half an hour thinking I was making headway,” said Ritchie. “I said ‘why don’t you come over for a cup of tea, or a beer, if you’d like one?’ He said ‘no’ and stepped straight off the side his hat blew up and I caught it in my hand.”
Whether he saved 160 people or 500 doesn’t matter – even saving a single human life is incalculably valuable. Mr. Ritchie has left behind quite a legacy: imagine having over a hundred people go on with their lives because you did nothing more than offer them an ear.
Not only is a wonderful example of the best aspects of humanity, but he offers an important lesson about what it takes to help another human being. All any of us want as humans, whether we’re suicidal or not, is someone to talk to and care. A small show of kindness or a simple offer to hear someone out could literally be all it takes. As Mr. Ritchie was found of saying, “a conversation could change a life.”
Indeed, he changed far more than many of course ever hope to. I hope more people take his lesson to heart. Think of all the lives we could improve or even save.
(To be clear, I’m not making light of suicidal and other morbid mental illnesses; obviously, certain individuals may require far more than human empathy to get better, as even Ritchie learned to his dismay. But the point is to at least make the effort. Taking a few minutes to check up on someone, be they friend or stranger, costs nothing but potentially save the most precious thing at all).
Finally, the Sydney Morning Herald also published an article that includes an interview with the charismatic but down-to-Earth Ritchie, whose sincerity and approachability makes it no mystery that he could coax people from the brink. As much as I’m tempted to mourn his death, I can’t help but feel happy that he lived such a full and accomplished life. I’m further consoled by the fact that there are many other low-key heroes just like him (including a very similar case in Japan).