Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Police suicides

Pondicherry police - kepis
Five police constables from Pune committed suicide this year. Suicide by police personnel the world over has been extensively reported. It is generally known that the occupation is stressful and associated with psychological stressors that make personnel prone to suicide. However, there is a marked variance in reported rates and stressors. Local factors may overshadow any generalisations even within the country. For instance, in the US/Europe firearms are the most common suicide method used by police (61-77%), but in Pune hanging was the only method used.

Sources of stress in police personnel

There is conflicting evidence as to the extent to which police constitute a high risk group for suicide. A study of well-being in police at Bangalore showed they were were better adjusted and had a better quality of life than comparable middle class urban factory workers (Geetha 1998). However, they had poorer social contact and support beyond the immediate family. This was attributed to their long working hours, requirement to be on duty during holidays, and the prevalent negative attitude of the public towards the police in general. Traffic policemen, personnel with higher education, and freshly recruited personnel were found to be under greater stress.

Police suicides are an interaction of personal vulnerabilities, workplace stressors, and environmental factors as is  seen with other worker groups. Two risk factors have been consistently delineated for suicide by police personnel; workplace trauma that increases vulnerability to posttraumatic stress disorders and organisational stressors that lead to burnout. Mental health interventions and organisational change are usually implemented to mitigate these factors. However, little attention is paid to the third leg of police suicide - personal factors (Stuart 2008). Personal factors had a major role to play in the Pune police suicides.

Suicide rates in police

Data on suicide rates for police in India is not available. However, the suicide rate in Pune is more than the national average. This rate is still increasing and is 17.3/100000 as of 2009.

Suicide rates in police personnel vary depending on geography. They can be higher than the general population as in Germany (25/100000 vs 20/100000), the same as the general population as in the US (14.9/100000) or half that of the comparable general population as in Canada (14.1/100000).

Suicide rates in police personnel also vary when calculated over long or short time frames, indicating the influence of clustering. This underlines the need for using longer time frames while studying this population (Loo 2003). A historical survey of police suicide from 1843-1992 in Queensland showed the rates reduced from 60/100000 to 20/100000 (Cantor 1995).

The accuracy and validity of police suicide rates are controversial. Under reporting of police suicide is significant (Violanti 2010). Up to 17% of police deaths in the US are classified as undetermined as compared to 8% for military deaths. Official police suicide rates are less accurate and less valid than suicide rates published for other working populations (Violanti 1996). We have already discussed the reasons and results of underestimating suicide rates in India.

What needs to be done

  1. Personal factors that contribute to suicide need special attention. These factors play alongside the workplace and environmental stressors in police personnel. These include psychiatric illnesses, alcoholism, physical ill health and interpersonal and marital problems. These problems are similar to those of the general population.
  2. An early warning system for stressful police events needs to be implemented. The LEOSS (Law Enforcement Officer Stress Survey) is a short 25-item questionnaire specifically designed to evaluate stress in police personnel (Van Hasselt 2003).
  3. Police personnel need easy access to mental health services. The barriers are formidable; psychiatric evaluation can result in job sanctions, reassignment, restriction of firearm privileges, missed promotions, and stigmatisation (Mazurk 2002). 
Need for more organisational change?

  1. Cantor CH, Tyman R, Slater PJ. A historical survey of police suicide in Queensland, Australia, 1843-1992. Suicide Life Threat Behav. 1995 Winter;25(4):499-507.
  2. Geetha PR, Subbakrishna DK, Channabasavanna SM. Subjecitive well being among police personnel. Indian J. Psychiat., 1998, 40(2), 172-179
  3. Loo R. A meta-analysis of police suicide rates: findings and issues. Suicide Life Threat Behav. 2003 Fall;33(3):313-25.
  4. Marzuk PM, Nock MK, Leon AC, Portera L, Tardiff K. Suicide among New York City police officers, 1977-1996. Am J Psychiatry. 2002 Dec;159(12):2069-71.
  5. Stuart H. Suicidality among police. Curr Opin Psychiatry. 2008 Sep;21(5):505-9.
  6. Van Hasselt VB, Sheehan DC, Sellers AH, Baker MT, Feiner CA. A behavioral-analytic model for assessing stress in police officers: phase I. Development of the Law Enforcement Officer Stress Survey (LEOSS). Int J Emerg Ment Health. 2003 Spring;5(2):77-84.
  7. Violanti JM, Vena JE, Marshall JR, Petralia S. A comparative evaluation of police suicide rate validity. Suicide Life Threat Behav. 1996 Spring;26(1):79-85.
  8. Violanti JM. Suicide or undetermined? A national assessment of police suicide death classification. Int J Emerg Ment Health. 2010 Spring;12(2):89-94.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

How to stop copycat suicides in students

Over the last two months three teenage students from the same Pune school have died by copycat suicide. 'Copycat’ suicides are frequent among adolescents aged 15-19 years. They occur more often than expected by chance alone. There has been an increase in teenage clusters in more recent years (Gould et al1990).

copycat suicide

Patterns of ‘copycat’ suicide

There are two patterns of suicide clusters: point clusters, which are localised in both space and time (spatio-temporal), and mass clusters, which are localised in time only.

Point clusters

A point cluster is a temporary increase in the frequency of suicides within a small community or institution like a school or hospital. This differentiation is important as even limited resources can be effectively mobilised for prevention.

Mass cluster

A mass cluster is a temporary increase in the frequency of suicides within an entire population. Mass clusters are typically associated with high-profile celebrity suicides that are publicised and disseminated in the mass media. Prevention here is mainly by media restraint.

This article is concerned with point cluster copycat suicides that occur in schools.

Causes of ‘copycat’ suicide


One of the causes of suicide is social learning. ‘Copycat’ suicides are caused at least in part by exposure to another individual's suicide and through the imitation of suicidal behaviour. Suicide modeling is a real phenomenon and there is ample evidence of its impact on suicide clusters (Mesoudi 2009, Insel and Gould 2003).


Point clusters may also occur due to of homophily, the tendency for individuals with similiar interests and outlook to preferentially associate with one another. Students who are have poor academic performance, are delinquent or abuse drugs tend to associate together. These high-risk clusters may form suicide clusters due to each member's independently high risk of suicide (Joiner 1999).


Community household poverty increases the risk of adolescent suicidal behavior. These communities place adolescents at a higher risk for associating with suicidal others. Adolescents brought up in poor communities would thus be subjected to the processes of both homophily and social modelling for suicide behaviour (Bernburg JG et al 2009 ).

Prevention of copycat suicide

One suicide in the school is tragic by itself. However, given the tendency for teenage suicides to occur in clusters urgent action needs to be taken to prevent further deaths. Successful suicide prevention programs have three general strategies - universal, selected and indicated. (Goldsmith et al 2002).

Universal approaches

These are strategies that target the entire school population. What the school does after the index suicide is important for prevention of point cluster suicides (Doan et al 2003). 
  • Respond within 24 hours of the suicide
  • Show concern and empathy
  • Inform all staff members about the suicide and provide a debriefing session where staff may voice their concerns, apprehensions, and any questions they may have.
  • Inform school board members
  • Ensure all teachers announce the death of the student by suicide to their first class of the day
  • Provide counseling sites throughout the school for students
  • Assign a school liaison to handle all media inquiries in order to avoid sensationalistic stories concerning the suicide
  • Monitor the school’s emotional climate (Has there been an increase in fights or school delinquency following a death by suicide?).
  • Evaluate all activities done following a death by suicide (How did your school respond? What worked and what did not work?).
  • Utilize an established linkage system or community network in order to make referrals to the appropriate services as well to exchange information concerning the appropriate steps for treating those affected by the suicide.
  • Utilize an established school response crisis team, which should include a diverse group of school professionals, such as the principal, counselor, teacher and possibly the school nurse.
A major aspect of preventing cluster suicides lies in not glamourising or memorialising the act in any way. This would include attention to points as below.
  • DON'T plant a tree or object in order to honor the student.
  • DON'T hold a memorial service for the student at the school.
  • DON'T describe in great detail the suicide (method or place).
  • DON'T dramatise the impact of suicide through descriptions and pictures of grieving relatives, teachers or classmates.
  • DON'T glamorise or sensationalise the suicide.

Selected approaches

Further specific strategies are for at-risk student groups. This would include screening and counselling of the student's known friends and group. Other at-risk children such as those with a previous history of attempted suicide, those known to have mood disorders, or substance use problems should also be specifically screened.

Indicated approaches

Students who show signs of suicidal potential should not be left alone. They should be given empathic support until they can be assessed by a psychiatrist, psychologist or counsellor and more definitive measures instituted. The signs of suicide potential include
  • statements about suicide or that things would be better if the student was dead
  • talking or writing about death, dying, or suicide

Every Pune school should have a mechanism in place to deal with the aftermath of student suicide to prevent copycat suicides in teenagers.

  1. Bernburg JG, Thorlindsson T, Sigfusdottir ID. The spreading of suicidal behavior: The contextual effect of community household poverty on adolescent suicidal behavior and the mediating role of suicide suggestion.Soc Sci Med. 2009 Jan;68(2):380-9. Epub 2008 Nov 18.
  2. Doan, J., Roggenbaum, S., & Lazear, K.J. (2003). Youth suicide prevention school-based guide (c/p/r/s)—Checklist 7a: Preparing for and responding to a death by suicide: Steps for responding. Tampa, FL: University of South Florida, Louis de la Parte Florida Mental Health Institute. (FMHI Series Publication #219-7a).
  3. Goldsmith SK, Pellmar TC, Kleinman AM, Bunney WE, eds. Reducing suicide: a national imperative. Washington, DC: National Academy Press; 2002.
  4. Insel BJ, Gould MS. Impact of modeling on adolescent suicidal behavior. Psychiatr Clin North Am. 2008 Jun;31(2):293-316.
  5. Joiner JTE. The clustering and contagion of suicide. Current Directions in Psychological Science. 1999;8:89–92
  6. Mesoudi A. The cultural dynamics of copycat suicide. PLoS One. 2009; 4(9): e7252. Published online 2009 September 30. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0007252.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Schools, punishment and suicide - teenagers dying of shame

A Pune school joined the ranks of those in which a punished and humiliated teenager committed suicide. A teenage life snuffed out by the psychological pain of humiliation. It was apparently over his talking with a girl student. He was thrashed by the school principal, two teachers and the girl's uncle. This was not punishment - it was physical abuse. The boy did not return home after school. His father, a labourer, went to the school to look for him. The next morning the teenager’s body was found on the railway tracks.

Labourers moving to their work-site

Behaviours perceived as undesirable by teachers

The chain of events in this suicide apparently begins with the teenager talking to a girl student - normal adolescent behaviour. It is in the stage of adolescence that opposite-sex social interaction begins. A co-ed school would be the ideal place for this adolescent interaction. Yet this behaviour was perceived as seriously undesirable by the school authorities. Let’s look at other behaviours perceived as undesirable by teachers (Borg MG, 1998).
  • Teachers perceive drug abuse, bullying and destruction of property as the most serious problem behaviours. Inquisitiveness and whispering are rated as the least serious
  • Cheating, lying, masturbation and heterosexual activity are considered as more serious in girls. In boys, dreaminess, disorderliness, silliness, quarrelsomeness, and restlessness are considered to be more problematic.
  • Female teachers perceive masturbation and obscene notes as more serious than male teachers. Male teachers perceive disorderliness to be more serious.

Punishment in schools

In the next step of the chain of events the teenager was punished for his normal adolescent behaviour.

Punishment is the application of an adverse stimulus after an unacceptable behaviour has occurred. The goal is to reduce the probability that the behaviour will recur. However, punishment, especially in public will also result in loss of self-esteem and humiliation. Public humiliation is known to promote further aggression - not reduce it.

In a school system there are better ways to induce behavioural change while preserving the child’s dignity. All behavioural measures start with defining the problem behaviour. Talking to a girl-student in a co-ed school is only problem behaviour when it is viewed on social class lines. School authorities and teachers need to realise their role as promoters and nurturers of responsible freedom and equality. As educators they need to go beyond their own personal biases.


A major interpersonal risk factor for suicide in India is humiliation (Bhatia et al, 1987). Humiliation is strongly related to aggressive behaviour. Suicide is nothing other than aggression turned inward (Freud. 1919). Middle class status protects the individual against aggression when humiliated (Aslund et al, 2009). That protection was not available for this lower socio-economic status labourer's son.

The outskirts of Pune are a churn of economic activity sucking in people with the promise of opportunity for work. In the mornings the roads from surrounding villages are lined by labourers walking with tiffin in hand to the nearest transport hub. Many among these house their families in one room shacks. It is a tribute to our system that at least for some among them the education of their children in a proper school is not just a dream. It is a shame on us that ten years of education and commitment of parents and the state can be cut short by insensitive punishment and humiliation by parents and educators. One labourer’s child died of that shame.


  1. Aslund C, Starrin B, Leppert J, Nilsson KW. Social status and shaming experiences related to adolescent overt aggression at school. Aggress Behav. 2009 Jan-Feb; 35(1):1-13.
  2. Bhatia SC, Khan MH, Mediratta RP, Sharma A. High risk suicide factors across cultures. Int J Soc Psychiatry. 1987 Autumn; 33(3):226-36.
  3. Borg MG. Secondary school teachers' perception of pupils' undesirable behaviours. Br J Educ Psychol. 1998 Mar; 68 (Pt 1):67-79.
  4. Freud S. Mourning and Melancholia. 1919

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Attempted suicide prosecuted in Pune

A 21-yr woman attempted suicide by jumping from the fourth floor of the gynaecology ward she was admitted in. She could not stand the pain of complications after a Caesarean Section. Section 309 of the Indian Penal Code was slapped against her by the police. 612 people committed suicide in Pune in 2008. This gives a documented suicide rate in Pune of 16.3 persons per 100,000 population. The national suicide rate is 10.8/100,000. This data is based on police records. A verbal autopsy study (1994-99) estimated an actual suicide rate of 95.2/100 000 population —nine times the national average.

This tragic incident and its background needs further analysis

How common is attempted suicide in a 21 year old woman during and after pregnancy?
The suicide rate for 15–24 year females is 109/100000. This exceeds the male rate of 78/100 000. Suicide is responsible for 49% of all deaths in women at these ages. During pregnancy attempted suicide is about 40 per 100,000 pregnancies. Women that attempted suicide during pregnancy had increases in caesarean delivery. One percent of people who attempt suicide complete it within a year

Why are official suicide rates gross underestimates?
Attempted suicide is a symptom associated with the stigma of mental illness and also the stigma of crime. To avoid this double stigma patients and we doctors collude to label the suicide attempt as accidental. Another verbal autopsy study (1997-98) of all deaths in a rural area showed that half the deaths ascribed to injuries were actually suicides. The real suicide rates are distorted depending on the degree of under-reporting.

So what if official suicide rates are gross underestimates?
80-95% of suicide is associated with treatable physical problems (including unremitting pain) and psychiatric problems (including post partum depression). When under-reported - resources meant for treatment of psychiatric disorders, including those for knowledge dissemination and manpower, are diverted to other problems.  A California study found that a psychiatric disorder increased the risk of postpartum suicide attempts 27.4-fold. The discrimination against females with mental illness is raised to a national level. People are left unaware that the conditions resulting in suicide attempts are disorders that are treatable; doctors and paramedical staff are not trained to recognise conditions that could lead to suicide; primary care doctors are unaware of simple, effective and available psychiatric treatment options. 

Why is the suicide rate in Pune one-and-a-half times the national average?
Among the many social factors associated with suicide, addressing suicide attempts humanely would contribute more to bringing down the actual suicide rate – definitely more so than prosecution. This high suicide rate in Pune may also have a flip side – we may have a better reporting system.