Earlier this month, the Associated Press reported a grim statistic: the number of military suicides rose to 349 in 2012, with suicides substantially exceeding the number of combat deaths. The military suicide rate has gone up greatly over the last decade: in the Army, the suicide rate is now roughly 30 per 100,000, almost triple the rate of suicide in the population as a whole.
Media stories paint a picture of crisis: military suicide is at "record highs," an "out of control" "epidemic" that's spreading "like an airborne disease." It can certainly feel that way at times. During a recent weekend at Fort Carson, for instance, one young soldier attempted suicide, another took his own life, and a third threatened to kill himself, but was eventually persuaded to give up his weapon.
All this within a single brigade -- and though it was a rough weekend, it wasn't entirely atypical. For every suicide in the military, there are several other service members who attempt suicide, threaten it, or tell friends or superiors they're contemplating it. The result is a grim litany of "serious incident reports" moving up the military chain of command, documenting a phenomenon that is as baffling as it is tragic.
There's no dearth of suicide prevention programs in the military. In recent years, DOD has launched or reinvigorated an ambitious and wide-ranging array of programs: there are suicide prevention stand-down days, suicide hotlines, "mental fitness" programs, and programs aimed at reducing the perceived stigma of seeking mental health help. In June 2012, Secretary Panetta noted that DOD had increased the number of behavioral health experts by 35 percent over three years, and suicide prevention has become a preoccupation at every level in the chain of command. Yet despite all these efforts, the military suicide rate remains stubbornly high, and keeps getting higher.
Is it possible that many of our well-intentioned efforts to prevent suicides in the military are actually having the opposite effect?
The phenomenon of "suicide contagion" or "imitative suicide" has been recognized for years. The most famous (though possibly apocryphal) example dates back to 1774, when 24-year-old Johann Wolfgang von Goethe published The Sorrows of Young Werther.
The story chronicles an unhappy love affair that culminates in the suicide of the protagonist. "See, Charlotte, I do not shudder to take the cold and fatal cup....With cold, unflinching hand I knock at the brazen portals of Death," proclaims Werther, having decided that death is the only honorable solution to his love for a married woman.
A classic of early German romanticism, the book was an immediate sensation when it was published in 1774. Rather too much of a sensation: throughout Europe, "Werther Fever" broke out, and young men and women dressed like Werther and swapped pirated copies of the slender volume. According to legend, the book also led to an outbreak of Werther-inspired suicides -- so many that authorities in Leipzig and Copenhagen banned the book altogether.
Historians are still debating the evidence of a Werther-inspired European suicide epidemic. But though we may never know how many suicides were truly inspired by Goethe's morbid little melodrama, 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."
This does not mean that the media should not report on suicide, of course. Suicide -- and changes in suicide rates within particular subgroups -- is legitimately of interest to the public, and it would be irresponsible for media outlets not to report on military suicide rates. But studies suggest that a great deal depends on just how suicide is covered.