Suicide Rates Climb; Misperceptions Remain

Two troubling reports were released this past week about climbing suicide rates, each of which point out misperceptions in the public's understanding. One study, released by the Center for Disease Control, confirmed a rise of 30 percent in the suicide rate over the last decade.

The public generally sees suicide as a problem of teenagers or the elderly, but the study found that the demographic with the sharpest increase was men in their 50's. Rates for this group jumped almost 50 percent. Some experts believe economic distress and the availability of psychotropic medicine could be among the causes.

Misperceptions aside, suicide is vastly underreported in the media. Spikes in rates are being seen around the world. At the Dart Center’s “Covering Suicide” workshop last fall, experts agreed that the problem constituted a public health crisis. Coverage of the entire workshop, including recaps, panel video, and tip sheets on best reporting practices is available here.

The other report, by the New York Times in an in-depth look at military suicides, found a continuing rise in the rate of suicide among American soldiers and armed service personnel. The surprise here is that 80 percent of these suicides occur among service members who have not experienced direct combat.

According to the Times story, “Over the course of nearly 12 years and two wars, suicide among active-duty troops has risen steadily, hitting a record of 350 in 2012… That total was twice as many as a decade before and surpassed not only the number of American troops killed in Afghanistan but also the number who died in transportation accidents last year.”

Traumatic Brain Injury is linked to a higher rate of suicidal thoughts, according to a recent study in the journal JAMA Psychiatry. But at least some soldiers are afraid of seeking treatment for PTSD, fearing such a diagnosis would stigmatize them. The debate taking place in the mental health field over whether to rename PTSD (or, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) to PTSI (Post Traumatic Stress Injury) was the focus of a recent Dart Center feature.

An example cited in the Times article is Marine Cpl. Wade Toothman, who died by suicide in 2011 after returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, where a roadside bomb blew out one of his eardrums. Upon returning home, he complained of chronic headaches, a possible symptom of a traumatic brain injury. But he refused to see a doctor, fearing a PTSD diagnosis. “People will say I’m crazy,” he told his mother.