Are Military Suicides Contagious?

When life gets difficult, suicide can seem like the only way out. (U.S. Air Force photo illustration/Steven White)
When life gets difficult, suicide can seem like the only way out. (U.S. Air Force photo illustration/Steven White)

If you, a loved one or friend are in crisis or at risk of suicide or self-harm, call or text the National Suicide and Crisis Lifeline at 988.

When so many good people are trying so hard to prevent suicide among our military members, why do the numbers continue to climb?

One factor that we may be ignoring is the effect that all this media attention may have on the suicide rate. Especially in tight-knit communities like the military. Especially among members of the population who are under 24 years old.

Since 1974, it has been established that suicide imitation can be spread inadvertently by the media. Sociologist David Phillips called it "The Werther Effect." Other scientists refer to it as "media contagion." Whatever you call it, certain details of news coverage of a suicide -- such as describing exactly how a person died and publishing tributes from family members -- have been shown to significantly increase the rate of suicide deaths.

The Center for Disease Control, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services all published guidelines to prevent that media contagion from happening.

Those guidelines are not being followed by military members. In a 2011 study, Amanda Edwards-Stewart and her colleagues reviewed 240 military and civilian newspaper reports of suicide from 15 different sources for compliance with the guidelines. Nearly all reviewed articles violated at least one guideline. The researchers found that military suicides were more likely to be reported in the news than those in the civilian population. Ineffective behavioral health treatment was more likely to be noted as a contributing factor to suicide.

The authors noted:

"Such emphasis can imply that seeking help for depression and suicide may lead to suicide instead of preventing it. This may be especially damaging to the military population, for whom stigma regarding behavioral health care prevents treatment-seeking."

We can see examples of this kind of media contagion everywhere right now. The coverage is undeniably well-meant. For example, the recent TIME magazine article about military suicide violated many of the CDC guidelines. The article had a prominent placement on the cover of the magazine. There was some "glorification" of the two members of the military who were featured. There were complete descriptions of exactly how both servicemembers killed themselves and the grief experienced when each of them was found. The reporters described just how the servicemembers sought help for behavioral health and exactly how the help failed.

That is exactly the kind of coverage that has been shown to increase suicide imitation.

Yet the article was well-researched. Insightful. Respectful of the military families involved. It exposed the idea that suicide is not confined to the heavily deployed -- a third of the suicides occurred among those who had never deployed and 43% occurred among those who had deployed only once. It revealed that the servicemembers knew exactly what to say to avoid further scrutiny. It revealed how one servicemember sought help from behavioral professionals six times. Six times.

We cannot afford to ignore the suicide rate in our community. We cannot pretend these deaths are not happening. We also have to be aware that certain kinds of attention exacerbate the problem. This puts us smack in a classic military Catch 22, walking a line between the living and the dead, hoping we can do the right thing.

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