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).
I am depressed…without phone…money for rent…money for child support…money for debts…money!!!…I am haunted by the vivid memories of killings and corpses and anger and pain…of starving or wounded children, of trigger-happy madmen, often police, of killer executioners…I have gone to join Ken [recently deceased colleague Ken Oosterbroek] if I am that lucky.
Suicide note of Kevin Carter, a photojournalist known for the famous and powerful photograph of a vulture stalking a starving child in Sudan. I can relate with emotional burden of these horrific things, though thankfully not with the suicidal ideation.
My heart is growing weary from these tragedies. I wish I could have talked to this person. Perhaps all she would’ve needed was a friend.
Good news is hard to come by these days, especially on the socioeconomic front. Declining education standards, growing inequality, increasing political apathy and cynicism – it seems everything is going wrong in our society, except for at least one auspiciously absent source of dismay: criminality.
A widespread sentiment in this modern age is that crime is worse than ever and morality is in steep decline (to which I’d ask, when hasn’t that been true?). In any case, this could only be expected to worsen in light of the worst recession in seventy years. With all the other social dysfunctions taken into account, delinquency and criminality should be at an all time.
But all the relevant data surprisingly suggests otherwise. Foreign Policy reports:
For all the grim news about the economy and jobs over the last few years, one indicator of the quality of life in the United States has stubbornly continued to improve. The latest Federal Bureau of Investigation data suggests crime rates went on falling through the first half of 2011, recession be damned. In 1991, the overall national violent crime rate reported by the FBI was 758 cases per 100,000 inhabitants; by 2010, that had dropped to 404 per 100,000. The murder and “non-negligent homicide” rate dropped by more than half over the same period. You wouldn’t know it from watching television — beyond the continuing conviction that “if it bleeds it leads” on local news, the number of violent acts on prime-time TV shows climbs ever-upward. But that rise in fake violence may have played some role in the real-life trend heading squarely the other way.
But what about the rest of the world, much of which is impoverished and politically unstable?
The United States isn’t alone in a trend towards people just getting along better — it’s a global phenomenon. In 2001, homicide killed more than twice the number of people worldwide who died in wars (an estimated 557,000 people versus total war deaths of around 208,000). But just as in the United States, violent crime rates have been falling across a large part of the planet. The data is patchy, but in 2002, about 332,000 homicides from 94 countries around the globe were reported to the United Nations. By 2008, that had dropped to 289,000. And between those years, the homicide rate fell in 68 reporting countries and increased in only 26.
Look at the really long-term picture and violent crime rates are way down. Institute of Criminology professor Manuel Eisner reaches all the way back to the 13th century to report that typical homicide rates in Europe dropped from about 32 per 100,000 people in the Middle Ages down to 1.4 per 100,000 in the 20th century. (Sadly, of course, for all of their decline, U.S. rates are still more than three times that — a rate above what Eisner suggests is the Western average for the 1700s.)
The global picture of the last few years, along with the historical picture covering the West over the last 800 years, both suggest that there isn’t just a constant proportion of bad people out there who will commit a crime unless you lock them up before they do it. And there’s a lot more evidence that whatever is behind declining violence it isn’t the number behind bars — or, indeed, the length of sentencing or the number of cops on the street.
Of course, you have to wonder how many crimes actually get reported in the first place. And even then, it’s important to consider whether the reporting standards of some countries are up to par. In many parts of the world, the police aren’t seen as trustworthy or competent enough to contact in the event of a crime.
Still, this data is all we have to go by, and if we can safely assume that crime is indeed going down (especially in those countries with trustworthy data), then what’s the cause? How is it that all these social, economic, and political problems haven’t eroded human behavior?
It is true that a Pew Center report suggests that as U.S. crime rates were declining, the national prison population increased from 585,000 to 1.6 million between 1987 and 2007. But the rest of the world hasn’t followed the United States down the path towards mass incarceration, and yet has still seen declining violence. The U.N. crime trends survey suggests that homicides fell in Britain by 29 percent between 2003 and 2008 alone, for example. And yet the incarceration rate in Britain was one-fifth as high as the United States, according to the Pew report. Again, within the United States, one of the places with the most dramatic drops in violent crime is New York City — the homicide rate is 80 percent down from 1990. But while the rest of the country was locking up ever more people, New York City’s incarceration rate fell by 28 percent over the last two decades.
What about harsh punishment? Statistics from MIT psychologist Stephen Pinker’s new book on global trends in violence show the United States used to execute more than 100 times the amount of people in the 1600s as it does today — and yet violence rates then were far higher than today. Think Clint Eastwood’s western, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly: Despite all of the authorized hangings, there was still a lot of unofficial shooting. More broadly, the number of countries using the death penalty has declined worldwide — along with violent crime rates.
In a survey asking “What Do Economists Know About Crime” for the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER), Angela Dills, Jeffrey Miron, and Garrett Summers conclude “economists know little.” They suggest that it isn’t just incarceration or the death penalty — any link between lower crime and the number of police, higher arrest rates, and the stock of guns (whether more or less of them) is weak. Studies from Latin America have echoed that longer sentences are not linked to lower crime rates — although a higher probability of being caught may be related to less violence in the region.
At the same time, for those convinced that crime is a product of poverty and inequality, the recent trends for New York and the nation as a whole also pose a challenge: For all the growing estates of the plutocrats in Wall Street, neither growing inequality nor rising unemployment has reversed the downward path of crime.Similarly, Latin American evidence suggests that while rising inequality might be linked to increased violence in the region, average incomes are not — richer countries are no safer than poorer ones, all else equal.
What about drugs, then? Interestingly, the NBER survey notes that drug enforcement might increase crime. The authors suggest that “If government forces a market underground, participants substitute violence for other dispute-resolution mechanisms,” — i.e., if they can’t go to court to settle their dispute over who gets which street corner, rival drug gangs will shoot each other instead.
As counterintuitive as it seems neither harsher punishment nor strong law enforcement necessarily reduces crime. Not even the death penalty or the availability of guns has any appreciable influence. At best these factors will have no effect, and at worst they will only make things worse. This is especially true of the war on drugs, which is a major contributor to our high incarceration rate:
New York’s experience suggests that it is possible to reduce the violence associated with drugs by taking those disputes off of the street. Franklin Zimring, a law professor at the University of California, Berkeley, suggests that one important factor behind the decline in homicide in New York was shutting down open-air drug markets. It didn’t slow sales, but it did eliminate 90 percent of drug-related killings over turf conflicts. Echoing the recent pattern in New York City, Eisner suggests that the long-term historical decline in Western homicide rates as a whole is associated with “a drop in male-to-male conflicts in public space.”
Given that decades of hardening our stance against crime has accomplished little, we could certainly use more innovative approaches like the one highlighted above. But even then, crime has been reduced across a variety of cities and regions that haven’t taken these effective approaches. So what gives? What’s ultimately causing crime to go down?
Over the sweep of centuries, Eisner suggests that cultural change — from “knightly warrior societies” to “pacified court societies” — is an important factor. So are we just getting more civilized, then? Indeed, the decline in violence coincides with global evidence of converging attitudes towards greater toleration. For example, the proportion of people worldwide who say they wouldn’t want to have a neighbor of a different religion dropped from 67 percent to 48 percent between the early 1990s and the mid-2000s. Turn on the television and you’d be sure to think that political dialogue is getting more rancid by day. And it might be, but people’s attitudes are actually becoming more pacific and tolerant.
Most socio-cultural trends are relative – yes intolerance and bigotry remain problematic, especially in some parts of the world. But it’s not as bad as it once was, nor does it lead to as much violence (if at all). Politics will always be dirty, but there’s no comparing the progressiveness of today’s average government and legal system with historical predecessors. On the whole, people are better educated, better governed, and more prosperous they their ancestors (even if improvements in these areas seem to be stagnating or declining).
But its gets more interesting:
Cultural factors are important, then. But before you rush to deride the Federal Communications Commission and the Supreme Court for their lackadaisical attitude to violence on television, note that the trend towards more — and more graphic — violence on TV doesn’t quite sync with the pattern of crime rates. A culture of violence and violence in popular culture are two very different things. In fact, one more element of cultural change that may behind declining violence is the substitution of fantasy violence for the real thing. French historian Robert Muchembeld argues in his book, History of Violence, that crime fiction and novels about war have given young men a way to indulge in violent fantasies without actually going out and stabbing someone. Or, over the last few years, they could stab someone playing Grand Theft Auto rather than stab someone while actually committing grand theft auto. This is the blood-and-gore version of the argument that more pornography leads to lower sexual violence.
There might be something to it. While exposing kids to the latest cadaver on CSI — or to Jack Bauer’s lessons in successful torture on 24 — is probably a bad idea, watching an action movie might in fact reduce violence among adults. A recent study in the Quarterly Journal of Economics suggests that violent crime rates actually dropped when a blood-splattered blockbuster was in the cinema in the United States. The authors Gordon Dahl and Stefano DellaVigna looked at data from 1995 to 2004 and concluded that violent movies deter almost 1,000 assaults on an average weekend in the United States.
Perhaps humanity will never completely abandon its lust for blood. But it appears that lust can in fact be sated using fake blood wielded by Hollywood special-effects technicians. And outside the theater, people respond to behavioral cues — if their friends don’t stab people to win an argument, they are less likely to do it themselves. They also respond to institutional cues — if they can use the courts to settle a dispute or address a wrong, they’re less likely to resort to blood feuds. All of which suggests the hope that, in years to come, there will be a lot more deaths on TV and movie screens than in the real world.
So there you have it. Our culture, from its values to its entertainment, has had mitigating effect on delinquency and immorality. Of course it’s more nuanced than that: our society also encourages a lot of consumerism and greed, while the public sphere is increasingly dominated by vitriol and partisanship. But again, it’s all relative, and today’s sociopolitical milieu is nowhere near as bad as it once was.
This doesn’t mean we should be complacent, given that cultures and society can always worsen or regress. But we should acknowledge that for all the problems we face, we’re improving in a lot of areas. We need to keep cultivating these sorts of principles so that more generations across the world can be positively influenced.
There’s also one grim fact to keep in mind: while global homicide rates have been decreasing precipitously, the number of suicides has climbed – more people kill themselves then are killed by others. And keep in mind that suicide tends to go underreported for religious and cultural reasons, so the margin between self-inflicted and interpersonal death may be even higher.
So as our societies move away from external conflicts with one another, we seem to be facing internalized struggles in their place. As I said, progress is always a nuanced thing.