When sociologist Mike Tomlinson began combing through the health records of people in Northern Ireland, he wasn’t interested in suicide. He was on the hunt for links between poverty and international conflict. But he came across a startling trend. From 1998 to 2008, the rate at which men in their mid-30s to mid-50s were committing suicide rose alarmingly fast, more quickly than the rate for the rest of Northern Ireland’s population.Some neuroscientists now think they can pinpoint the brain changes brought on by early exposure to trauma, so this effect seems to have physical correlates.
At first, that spike made no sense. A peace agreement reached in 1998 transformed Northern Ireland into a prosperous and tranquil place. Economic indicators had been surprisingly good. Suicide rates in neighboring countries were all gently falling. Nothing seemed to explain why so many of these men were killing themselves.
But Tomlinson found a hint in the men’s pasts. They had all grown up in the late 1960s and the 1970s, during some of the worst violence Northern Ireland had ever experienced. Called the Troubles, this warlike period brought religious and political fighting that pitted neighbor against neighbor. Children of the Troubles lived with terrorism, house-to-house searches, curfews and bomb explosions. Trauma early in life had rendered men more vulnerable to taking their own lives later, Tomlinson proposed in July in International Sociology.
As a historian, these studies always make me think about past periods of great violence, like the Hellenistic Age or the early Middle Ages. Surely those societies had high rates of what we would call mental illness. How did that change them? Obviously those cultures were not crippled, any more than European society was crippled by World War II. Some have argued that, in fact, civilization's most creative periods have been particularly violent, from Sumer to the 20th century. I am not so sure, but it is obviously true that very violent societies can create remarkable art and impressive new institutions.
Does that mean that on the level of societies, the impact of violence is actually modest? Or does it have positive effects that balance the negative ones? Could it be that growing up in violent, troubled times causes some people to crack, but others to become tougher and more creative? Or that the shock to old institutions brings new talent to the fore?