Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Preventing Suicide

In the past year or so, the news media have reported on a couple of disturbing research studies that showed rising suicide rates. The latest study reported that suicide has been increasing in every age group except the elderly. What is prompting this increase and what can be done about it?

Many have speculated that economic hard times are behind increasing suicides. This could certainly be a possibility for the increasing rates of suicide in middle-aged people, many of whom lost retirement savings and jobs, or lost homes, during and after the crash of 2008.

Increased suicides among girls age 10-14 is more of a puzzle. One theory is that increased social media bullying is the cause. If this is true, an easy way to decrease these suicides is to not give your daughter a smartphone until she is old enough to tolerate or stand up against bullying. That kind of personal strength is unusual in people under age 15. Facebook supposedly doesn't allow accounts for people under age 13, but I don't know if this is enforced at all. It's really up to parents to protect their children. Likewise, it's important to ask your child about bullying and take steps to address it if it occurs, including speaking with the school principal, switching schools and/or taking legal action. Harassment and stalking are against the law regardless if the perpetrator is a teen, and Title IX of the Civil Rights Act forbids sex discrimination in education, which could make sexually-related bullying a federal violation if it is tolerated by the school.

Teen girls are now subjected to more degradation than ever before. Besides social media harassment, they also now have male peers who view internet pornography, and who may as a result view girls and women as subservient or degraded sex objects. Some girls may be pressured into sex acts as a result, and viewing of some types of pornography is a trauma for a young person. Pop music stars such as Beyonce and Miley Cyrus perform burlesque acts that may confuse 11 and 12 year old girls, who are told that these sexually objectifying performances are acts of empowerment, while at the same time they are derided as "sluts" if they dress the wrong way or date boys. Overweight girls are teased, but thin girls are also derided in popular culture--take a look at Meaghan Trainor's hit video "All About That Bass," a profane, vicious, bullying rant that is promoted as "happy" music on Amazon. Trainor's songs are marketed to young teen girls.

The more I think about it, are we really surprised that suicide is on the rise? Perhaps the reason the suicide rate of the elderly is not rising (despite the fact it historically has been higher than for other age groups) is because elderly people are more likely to have assets that weren't as affected by the 2008 crash, Social Security incomes, and a lack of involvement in degrading aspects of popular culture.

In terms of specific risk factors and prevention, something that we know about suicide is that it is often an impulsive act and often based on cognitive distortions. Even when times are bad, most people are able to recognize that things can get better. People commit suicide because they don't see a way out. They develop a narrow way of thinking that blocks out options. They also often don't believe that others can or will help them. They don't "reach out" for help. These thought patterns and behaviors are referred to as "hopelessness and helplessness," and mental health professions screen for suicide risk not just through asking patients how depressed they feel and whether they have had thoughts about suicide, but also by assessing whether the patient has any plans for the future and whether the patient has a social support network. People can be very depressed and feel like they don't want to live, but if they feel connected to others they are less likely to commit suicide. Someone who does not have anyone in whom to confide is far more likely to commit suicide than a depressed person who reaches out for help. This brings up another possible reason why suicide is on the increase--some studies have found that more people are reporting few or no close friends, in comparison to previous decades.

If we want to live in a society with a low rate of suicide, we need to have a stable economy that provides some security for everyone, we need to encourage friendship and mutual trusting  relationships,  and we need to protect vulnerable persons such as young girls from degradation via the internet.