In 1897 the famed French sociologist Emile Durkheim published a study on the phenomenon of suicide. In this classic tome of social science, he writes: “Each victim of suicide gives his act a personal stamp which expresses his temperament, the special conditions in which he is involved, and which, consequently, cannot be explained by the social and general causes of the phenomenon.”
Durkheim was quite right. Each person who kills himself does so for highly individualized reasons. Even though many people in the world may have similar motivations for the same act, each one is imbued with special circumstances beyond the ken of general social explanations. This uniqueness is especially frustrating in light of a report just issued by the U. S. Surgeon General citing a significant rise in suicides and attempted suicides in the public.
While we have known for some time that military suicides have increased in recent years, that the phenomenon has crept into the civilian world is all the more disturbing. “Right now we are losing more of our soldiers to suicide than we are to combat,” Army Secretary John McHugh says.
Paradoxically, the majority of military suicides are not combat related. Fifty-four percent of military personnel who committed suicide in 2010 and 59 percent who attempted suicide that year were never deployed, McHugh said during a press conference with other national health officials.
“What this tells us is we are dealing with broader societal issues,” he said, including drug and alcohol abuse, relationship problems and depression.
To help combat this terrible epidemic, health officials are spearheading a program that encompasses social media services like Facebook and other private companies.
“America loses approximately 100 Americans every 24 hours from suicide,” Pamela Hyde, administrator of the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, says. Among U.S. people between the ages of 18 to 24, suicide is now the third leading cause of death, officials say.
As a consequence, U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Regina Benjamin says, “It’s time to turn our attention to prevention.” “More than 37,000 Americans took their own lives in 2009 … more than 500,000 Americans were depressed enough to have actually tried it,” Hyde said.
Part of this problem owes to the fact that we have allowed the insurance industry to draw a false distinction between mental health and other physical health issues. Often, people — even people with very good health insurance — have very limited coverage for psychological treatment or substance abuse programming. As such, large swaths of otherwise treatable people self-medicate with drugs and alcohol, often to disastrous, self-destructive ends.
The new strategy combines government, the private sector, schools and communities to help raise suicide awareness, increase prevention efforts and develop new treatments for those at risk.
The federal government announced Monday that it will increase staff by 50 percent at the national hotline: 1-800-273-TALK. The hotline is free and open to everyone — service members and civilians alike. The government has provided $55.6 million for state and local programs, and highlighted Facebook features that link distressed users to counselors.
It will also begin broadcasting public service announcements urging people to seek help if they spot signs that someone is suicidal.
As Benjamin put it, “Preventing suicide is everyone’s business.”