In Calculation of Suicide Rates, Numbers Not Always Straightforward:

An analysis of Pentagon data shows that the Department of Defense uses numbers that may underestimate its suicide rate. A different methodology, like one employed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, would result in a military rate equivalent to or above the comparable civilian rate, experts say.

Bob Anderson, head statistician for mortality statistics at the C.D.C., said the Pentagon’s approach resulted in a suicide rate that “will be lower than it should be.”

“It will underestimate the mortality rate,” he said.

The difference is about more than math. The suicide rate is perhaps the most important data point for tracking trends in suicide and comparing different populations.

To determine the rate, statisticians divide the number of suicides in a year by the total population.

The first number is fairly straightforward: for the entire military, there were 309 active-duty suicides in 2009, the most recent year for which comparable civilian data is available. (The military number includes National Guard and reserve troops who were on active duty when they killed themselves.)

But the total military population is not as simple to estimate. Not only are service members joining and leaving the military constantly, National Guard and reserve troops are also continuously flowing on and off active-duty rosters. How one estimates the number of Guard and reserve troops on active duty at any one time clearly affects the total military population.

Population discrepancies are not just limited to the military either. One of the biggest problems with the UCR and other crime statistics and suicide rate measurements is that they fail to take into account populations shifts and mobility (though the CDC does us the “one day snapshot” average in some cases as a control).

Also, this article makes it sound like counting the first part, the suicide itself, is a given. It isn’t. Law enforcement, medical examiners and other organizations (like the Military) may “unfound” reported suicides for a variety of reasons (request of the family, to make the organization look better, to downplay its extent, etc.). As Jack Douglas warned years ago, we should always be leery of “official statistics” and what methodologies are being used to arrive at these figures.

Nonetheless, the problem is worse than the official numbers have indicated for a long time.

There is no dispute on one issue: the military rate has been climbing faster than the civilian rate. According to the Pentagon, the military rate of 18.5 suicides per 100,000 service members in 2009 was up from 10.3 suicides per 100,000 in 2002 — an 80 percent increase. A comparable civilian suicide rate rose by about 15 percent in the same period.

An accompanying article in the Times makes the point even more salient, and makes it clear that after decades of research, we’re nowhere near understanding the causes of the “never ending war.”

Though the Pentagon has commissioned numerous reports and invested tens of millions of dollars in research and prevention programs, experts concede they are little closer to understanding the root causes of why military suicide is rising so fast.

“Any one variable in isolation doesn’t explain things,” said Craig J. Bryan, associate director of the National Center for Veterans Studies at the University of Utah. “But the interaction of all of them do. That’s what makes it very difficult to solve the problem. And that’s why we haven’t made advances.”

Intersectionality (reciprocal attachments among variables) is a growing field within suicidology these days and its growth should be applauded. The only way we are ever going to get to the root cause of suicide is to recognize the fact that it’s rarely ever one single variable that causes it, but instead a perfect storm of tribulations which increase the risk of mortality.

Cross Posted to The Power Elite

By David Mayeda

For Emile Durkheim, anomie was a state of normlessness, a society where individuals’ connections with each other had become frayed. This happened during times of massive social change and could lead to heavier patterns of suicide. For Durkheim, the other critical aspect of anomie was that it existed when there was an absence in social regulations that would help to guide behaviours. Or put in more Durkheim-esque terms, anomie equates to normlessness in social regulations.

That is partly what we see in this clip from HBO’s awesome drama, The Wire (season 3). Here Major Colvin (a.k.a., “Bunny”, pictured below) has established a safe zone of sorts for mid-level drug dealers from a variety of gangs. This sector becomes called “Hamsterdam” after a youth misinterprets the area being compared to Amsterdam where drug use is largely decriminalized. There are very little regulations in “Hamsterdam,” as the drug dealers may freely sell their products while law enforcement turns a blind eye, as long as there is no overt physical violence.

In short, dealers may deal, and users may buy and use without many legally enforced regulations or forms of social control. It should also be noted that Durkheim felt crime was a normal part of society. But, when the level of crime passed a certain threshold, then crime would no longer be considered normal and instead would be an indicator of society being truly sick. But before we get to the clip, let’s also account for Robert Merton’s rendition of anomie.

For Merton, anomie happened when there was a loss of means, meaning society didn’t care about the pathways by which people gained wealth, as long as they got wealthy (see also here). Or put another way, getting wealthy was more important than the processes by which someone made/got money. Likewise in this socially constructed environment of “Hamsterdam,” the means by which drug dealers make money is out of control. The goal is to profit, and there are no social morals that would otherwise guide people on how to reach those goals appropriately. Hence, the dealers (as directed by their superiors in the drug crews) will sell drugs to whoever will buy, something that’s facilitated in “Hamsterdam.”

In “Hamsterdam,” we see a combination of normlessness regarding both regulations and means…it’s total anomie for both Durkheim and Merton. Consequently, the levels of crime, and retreatism are astronomical. Even a seasoned character like “Bubbles” in this scene is deeply disturbed as he walks through the community. Of course as Major Colvin would like to point out, by decriminalizing drugs in one sector of the community, the rest of the community is much improved. Gang violence has subsided substantially across the broader sectors of West Baltimore. Unfortunately, unlike Amsterdam, public health-based social services are completely lacking in “Hamsterdam,” and only come in too late as Colvin’s social experiment is about to get shut down.

Okay, now let’s check out “Hamsterdam”:

By David Mayeda

Back in the 1950s as criminologists began to more seriously explore the sociological causes behind crime, Robert K. Merton put forth his perspective through strain theory. Merton argued that mainstream society holds certain culturally defined goals that are dominant across society. In a capitalist society, the dominant goal that most people aim for is accumulating wealth. Merton further argued that this goal of becoming financially wealthy was so powerful that the goal of getting rich itself had become more important than the means by which one attained wealth. In other words, whether you got rich via conventional/legal means, or via unconventional/illegal means, it didn’t matter, as long as you got your coin. For Merton then, there was anomie (normlessness) regarding the means.

Merton furthered this perspective by providing a framework by which sociologists could typologise criminals and non-criminals – strain theory. Strain theory argues that one must consider if an individual rejects or accepts (1) society’s cultural goals (wanting to make money), as well as (2) the institutional means by which to attain those goals.

To this end, five typologies were established:

  1. Conformists, who accept the culturally defined goal of financial success, as well as the institutional means society defines as appropriate to reach that goal (e.g., advancing one’s education, steadily working, saving money). Conformists follow rules and believe doing so will pay off financially.
  2. Innovators, who also accept the culturally defined goal of financial success, but do not follow society’s rules (i.e., laws) in their pursuit of attaining wealth. Innovators may not have the means to attain financial wealth (e.g., not enough money to further advance education), and/or simply not believe in the law. Hence, innovators turn to crime.
  3. Ritualists are those individuals who do not believe they can attain the culturally defined goal of accumulating financial wealth, but who continue to do so through society’s acceptable cultural pathways simply because they are supposed to (e.g., going to work and school, despite feeling such actions will never pay off).
  4. Retreatists are people who reject the goal of financial wealth, as well as the means society deems acceptable to get rich. Hence people in this group escape, or retreat from society, often times through substance use.
  5. Rebels are the last group who redefine society’s goals and create new institutional means of pursuing their unique goals. Rebels work outside of the established system. (See the framework mapped out by clicking here):

Okay, so let’s apply this theory to some examples from HBO’s television drama series, The Wire. In this first example, we see two snippets from Season 3 when characters Avon Barksdale (a west Baltimore drug kingpin recently released from prison) and his right-hand man, Stringer Bell, debate how they can reclaim their top “real estate” (or “corners”), where they would have the younger members of their crew sell heroine. Though not seen in these snippets, a new player named Marlo has entered the west Baltimore market and violently taken the most lucrative corners from Avon’s crew.

Listen to Avon and Stringer Bell discuss the pros and cons of going against Marlo versus trying to work with him. And more importantly listen to Avon – despite already having achieved extensive wealth – state how he would rather habituate by remaining a gangster, or from Merton’s perspective, an innovator. In contrast, listen to Stringer Bell push to work with Marlo and eventually desist from the drug trafficking scene, making “straight money,” much more so as a conformist.

Let’s also examine two other characters from The Wire – “Bubbles” and Johnny. In the early parts of this series, Bubbles and Johnny would be defined predominantly as retreatists, who aspire incessantly to get high on heroine. But over the series, Bubbles changes. As the two comrades walk down the street in this scene, listen to Bubbles talk of wanting to desist by becoming a “snitch” for the police. In other words, he is working towards becoming a conformist. Johnny, however, wants none of this:

Johnny temporarily convinces Bubbles to help him rip off the man on the ladder. And note in this particular scene,  Bubbles and Johnny are both innovators – working to get money via illegal means. Still, I would argue Johnny’s status stands predominantly as a retreatist, who innovates through petty crime simply to feed his retreatist addiction (i.e., retreat from society). And again, while Bubbles is an innovator in tandem with his friend in this scene, he is clearly working towards a life of conformity, seen more clearly when he disappears and decides not to take the money.

More analyses through The Wire on the way..