When the Pentagon reported in August that Army suicide deaths had doubled from June to July, the full impact of these deaths might not have been realized.
A small body of research suggests that exposure to suicide can have devastating health and economic consequences to those left behind. Suicide researchers call these individuals "suicide survivors" or the "suicide bereaved."
Exposure to suicide might also lead to even more deaths by suicide. Current theory explains that increased contact with suicide can cause desensitization, and the ability to fatally harm oneself can be increased.
Exposure to suicide might have outcomes we have yet to detect. Researchers do not know all the consequences of suicide and just who is affected, as this is an area of research that has not received significant funding or attention in the 40 years that suicide has been systematically studied.
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We do know this much: Kentucky loses three times as many residents to suicide as to homicide. Suicide is the second-leading cause of death for young Kentuckians 15 to 34 years old. Statewide, older adults in Kentucky have a higher suicide rate than the national average.
One small study conducted at the University of Kentucky indicates that 40 percent of people know someone who died by suicide and that one in five people are personally affected by a suicide.
Following Surgeon General David Satcher's "Call to Action to Prevent Suicide" in 1998, suicide survivors have been a driving force behind developments to pay for prevention services. Fueled by a desire to turn their grief into action, parents, children, siblings, spouses and friends have pounded the halls of Congress.
Sens. Harry Reid and Gordon Smith publicly disclosed their own grief over the suicide deaths of loved ones in hearings. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration funded a national toll-free hotline. States, Native American tribes and college campuses have competed for money aimed at preventing suicide among the most vulnerable populations.
As a recipient of a campus grant and a collaborator on two state grants, UK was able to develop unprecedented suicide prevention services on campus, but has been unable to finance necessary research into its effects.
More attention to the effects of suicide has been directed in recent months by the disturbing reports emerging from the Pentagon about suicide death eclipsing combat-related death since the start of the war in Afghanistan in 2001.
In June, the Pentagon said that in the first 155 days of 2012, there were 154 suicide deaths in the military. Only 1 percent of the U.S. population has fought in the most recent Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts, but veterans account for about 20 percent of U.S. suicide deaths, which total about 37,000 every year.
Tragic stories about military wives stunned by the suicide deaths of their heroic husbands were reported in a Time magazine cover story in July. VA Secretary Eric Shinseki addressed the problem publicly at a joint conference with the Department of Defense in June, promising that a "telemental health" rollout and use of electronic medical records will allow the VA to reach more veterans who are struggling with suicide.
All of the discussion in spring and summer occurred against a civilian backdrop of the very public suicide deaths of Mary Kennedy and several NFL football players. Magazines resurrected the "Kennedy curse," and People magazine's cover story read, "Why Did Mary Kennedy Take Her Life?"
Disbelief surrounded player Junior Seau's death. But little has been said about the devastating impact on those left behind and what might be done to stem the "epidemic" to prevent further deaths.
Thanks to the prescience of the Department of Defense's Military Suicide Research Consortium, dedicated to comprehensive suicide prevention within the armed forces, research has been funded at UK to investigate both the incidence of suicide exposure and consequences of suicide bereavement. Military personnel and civilians are being studied.
One phase of the study specifically addresses military families who have lost a veteran or active-duty service member to suicide. This landmark research is only a beginning. In July, the House passed an increase in the Pentagon's suicide prevention budget. Some legislators have advocated for an increase in the most "effective" suicide prevention programs.
Addressing the effects of exposure to suicide and those left behind might be a place to start.