Human health and planetary health are intertwined
PTSD awareness month — an average of 20 veterans per day commit suicide
In the wake of the suicides of celebrity designer Kate Spade and celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain nearly two weeks ago, there was an outpouring of news stories, tweets and hashtags regarding suicide awareness. Most often, the crux of these messages was to encourage those with suicidal thoughts to seek help, and included the sharing of information for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline and website.
Unfortunately, in the time that's passed since then, suicide awareness has largely gone the way of Yanny or Laurel, Roseanne vs. Samantha Bee, and other things that our 24-hour news cycle has already quickly moved on from.
However, with June being PTSD awareness month, it is also an important reminder that suicide awareness and prevention require a year-round focus from the media and the public in order to prevent future tragedies.
Nowhere is the connection between PTSD and suicide felt more strongly than in the veteran community. In fact, veterans who experience combat trauma are at the highest relative suicide risk than individuals exposed to other types of trauma. Despite this finding, the news media does not react with the sense of sadness and tragedy when a veteran commits suicide than when a beloved celebrity does.
For example, on June 15, 2018, just days after the deaths of Spade and Bourdain, Vietnam-era veteran Michael Douglas, 69, died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound in the parking lot of the Leavenworth VA hospital. Although the facts surrounding Douglas' death were reported locally, there was no outpouring of twitter posts with the hashtag #SuicideAwareness, nor were there copious op-eds from national newspapers and magazines afterward questioning why the troubled veteran would resort to suicide.
The question then becomes, since the media seems to obsess over celebrity suicides, how can we effectively transform this coverage into meaningful action for the non-famous, since suicide is an epidemic in the US, particularly among veterans?
Suicide is now the 10th leading cause of death in America, and it effects some members of the population more disproportionately than others. Male veterans are 18 times more likely to kill themselves than their civilian counterparts, and female veterans are, sadly, 250 times more likely to commit suicide than their civilian counterparts.
Another grave statistic is that it is estimated that an average of 20 veterans per day commit suicide - which translates to one veteran every 65 minutes. Although "celebrity" is a much more difficult term to define than veteran, there are no readily available statistics on the number of celebrities a day that commit suicide.
Despite the difference in statistics, the silver lining of celebrity suicides, and the media attention that they receive, is that they highlight the fact that suicide is non-discriminatory. In other words, at a time when the military-civilian divide is at an all-time high, coverage of celebrity suicide reminds us that issues pertaining to PTSD, mental health, and suicide can affect anyone, regardless of age, gender, race, or socioeconomic situation.
According to Tommy Rieman, Care Coordinator for Veterans Bridge Home in Charlotte, N.C., who is also a Silver Star and Purple Heart Recipient:
"I've attempted suicide twice and I am so grateful that I failed. My children are much better off and now I know there is no situation that I cannot get past. Although the suicide rate is the highest among veterans, the recent string of celebrity suicides is more proof of the mental health epidemic in our country. Suicide is a horrible option, but it is a shame that it takes a celebrity taking their own life to start the conversation."
Reiman is correct that although it is a shame that it requires a celebrity death to start the conversation, our responsibility as a society is to keep the conversation going.
So, the next time that you mourn a celebrity's death, take a step back and remember that suicide is a much larger problem in this country, particularly for those who have bravely served in our armed forces. Although passively sharing a number via social media is a start, and it is certainly better than doing nothing, passive behaviors alone do not solve serious problems (just ask anyone who's sole response to a mass-shooting has been thoughts and prayers).
According to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, there are several things you can do to help someone who is suicidal from following through on the act. The number one thing is to ask, in a nonjudgmental way, if someone is thinking of suicide, and offer to be supportive. And of course, if you are going to ask, be sure you are also willing to listen.
Even if you do not suffer from PTSD directly, this PTSD awareness month, remember that a healthy society is everyone's responsibility. Performative empathy, particularly when it comes to veterans dealing with combat or military-related trauma, can go a long way.
Actively checking on people you care about, rather than just tweeting about preventative measures in the aftermath of a celebrity suicide, can certainly make a difference. In fact, they may even save a life.
Rory E. Riley-Topping served as a litigation staff attorney for the National Veterans Legal Services Program (NVLSP), where she represented veterans and their survivors before the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims. She also served as the staff director and counsel for the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs, Subcommittee on Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs for former Chairman Jeff Miller (R-Fla.). You can find her on Twitter: @RileyTopping.