Social Media: A Window into a Post Traumatic World

Social Media: A Window into a Post Traumatic World

Every day, 22 military veterans commit suicide, according to the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.  Between 2005 and 2011 the veteran suicide rate rose 2.6 percent a year, over twice that of the civilian national average. Called an “epidemic” among post 9/11 service members, the total number of veteran suicides for the entire year is expected to exceed 8,000. Almost one out of every five American suicides is carried out by a former military service member. This figure is particularly troubling given that veterans make up only 10 percent of the entire U.S. adult population. The driving force behind these numbers is seemingly Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

According to the Department of Veterans Affairs (2012), 30 percent of the nearly one million Iraq and Afghanistan War veterans treated at VA clinics and hospitals have been diagnosed with PTSD. A recent survey conducted by the Washington Times found that respondent military spouses estimated that 60 percent of military PTSD victims were going untreated. Researcher Gary Wynn of the Walter Reed Army institute believes that somewhere between 20 and 50 percent of veterans who seek treatment abandon it before completion.

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is rooted in prolonged firsthand experience of acutely distressing situations, e.g. military combat. Often correlating with psychiatric illness and traumatic brain injury, PTSD is characterized by avoidance, anxiety and hopelessness. These feelings often lead to depression, substance abuse, interpersonal problems, employment issues and suicidal feelings.

Suicidal ideation (thoughts about suicide) is perhaps the most important predictor of suicidal action. For veterans, ideation is more problematic because many are not only trained in the use of firearms but also own them. Meaning they possess greater means to act on suicidal thoughts than their counterparts among the general public. Identifying the indicators of suicide is paramount in preventing it.

Fortunately, social media may offer distinguishable clues to friends, family and loved ones of those suffering from PTSD and suicidal ideation.  A persons’ self-imposed social withdrawal can be potentially determined through Facebook usage spikes between 11 p.m. and 5 a.m. Research has illustrated that those most active on these sites late at night generally suffer from greater incidences of depression. The language and content of status updates and tweets can further offer insight into the suicidal psyche. Depression is illustrated through linguistic patterns featuring anchor-words like “death,” “depression,” “suicide,” “pain,” and “life.” A high concentration of posted photographs depicting drug and alcohol should be further viewed as warning signs. Frequent Facebook use often compounds the original problem, a Time magazine study surveying 600 people found that one in three experienced feelings of misery, envy and loneliness while logged on.

If suicidal behavior is witnessed via social media, VA Home Loan Centers advises users to report the content directly to Facebook. Built-in protocols do exist for suicidal users. A safety team will assess the content, verify it and then contact the original poster with a message saying “someone on Facebook is worried about you.” The user is then prompted to speak directly with a counselor at the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. Sometimes just knowing another person cares is enough to make a difference.

-Noah Perkins,

CMS, VA Home Loan Centers