Professor of Social Welfare Mark Kaplan was featured in a Press-Enterprise article about the increase in suicide risk among young people during the COVID-19 pandemic. While there has been a decline in adult suicides since the beginning of the pandemic, data show that suicides among minors have stayed consistent or increased compared to before the pandemic. Many experts have expressed concern that social isolation, distance learning and other pandemic stresses are hitting young people especially hard. Crisis hotlines have experienced an increase in calls from young people suffering mental health problems. Kaplan, who has been studying suicide for decades, explained that young people who were already more likely to consider killing themselves are more vulnerable now, including LGBTQ youth, those suffering abuse, homeless youth, those with substance abuse problems, those living in foster homes or those growing up in poverty. “There’s a physical isolation that’s taking its toll,” he said. “It’s leading to despair.”
“The convergence of stress from the pandemic with increased firearm and alcohol sales creates a hazardous situation for those at risk of suicide,” cautioned Professor of Social Welfare Mark S. Kaplan, co-author of a correspondence in the latest volume of The Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs. Kaplan and a team of researchers from around the United States responded to recent research suggesting an increase in alcohol-related suicides due to the economic decline related to the COVID-19 pandemic. Noting previous co-authored research, Kaplan and his colleagues wrote that “alcohol ingestion itself (and especially acute alcohol intoxication) might be a key risk factor for suicide during and shortly after economic contractions.” The unemployment rate during the current pandemic could exceed that of the Great Depression of the 1930s, especially among socially disadvantaged groups, they point out in the journal published by the Rutgers Center of Alcohol Studies. “Particularly relevant to the economic contraction related to COVID-19, we found that suicide rates were most closely associated with rising poverty. These findings suggest that more than individual-level economic factors are at play in influencing suicide risk; place-level economic shocks also matter,” they noted. Kaplan and his team cite the increase of alcohol sales during a time of physical distancing when people may be becoming intoxicated in isolation. They also noted that the current situation could provide opportunities for suicide prevention. Experts in the field suggest increasing alcohol taxes, limiting times for alcohol sales, reducing the density of alcohol outlets and increasing access to treatment for people with substance use disorders.
Social Welfare Professor Mark Kaplan was cited in an 808 Opinions blog post about the exacerbation of gun violence during times of crisis. The post argued that economic hardship and social unrest as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic have incited fear and panic. It also pointed to a rise in shootings, online ammunition sales and processed background checks for firearm purchases. The author cited a presentation by Kaplan that tied gun violence to racial and socioeconomic inequality in America. “You hear all about poverty, but inequality is another measure of economic well-being,” Kaplan said. “There is a strong correlation between homicide per million and income inequality.”
By Stan Paul
A new special edition of a social work journal focuses on gun violence in part because of guidance provided by Mark Kaplan, professor of social welfare at UCLA Luskin.
Kaplan was part of an editorial team of social work scholars from throughout the United States who bring together research on various aspects of firearm violence in the November edition of Health & Social Work, which is published by the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) Press and Oxford University Press.
He said that the special edition was meant to spark serious discussion and serve as “a call to action to people to begin thinking of this as a major challenge in professional circles.”
Kaplan, who uses population data to understand suicide risk factors among veterans, seniors and other vulnerable populations, joined colleagues in contributing articles to the publication. Kaplan’s contributions were co-authored with UCLA Luskin Social Welfare Ph.D. students Amelia Cromwell Mueller-Williams and Carol Leung, along with Ziming Xuan, an associate professor at Boston University’s School of Health.
According to an editor’s note about the special issue, “The field of social work has an obligation to address significant issues affecting clients and communities, including the outstanding issues of gun violence in the United States.”
Firearm violence in the United States is considered a public health crisis, and statistics cited in connection to the special issue paint a sobering picture.
Almost 40,000 people — about 60 percent from suicide — die annually. A large proportion of those dying are young people, the editors noted in their call for papers. Not all populations are affected equally — African American men make up the majority of firearm homicides.
The special issue also looks at the stress faced by people who survive shootings, pointing out that many live with chronic effects from their injuries. Gun violence affects immediate victims plus their families and communities.
Kaplan serves on the Board of Scientific Counselors for the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, a branch of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And he is a scientific advisor to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.
“Given the alarming rates of gun deaths in this country, the time seems right for social workers to address this issue in a more comprehensive way,” said co-editor Mickey Sperlich, an assistant professor at the University at Buffalo’s School of Social Work. The volume’s other co-editors are Patricia Logan-Greene, also an associate professor at the University of Buffalo, and Karen Slovak, who serves on the faculty of the School of Social Work at Capella University in Minneapolis.
Although recent mass shootings across the country have heightened public awareness and concern, policy action and research remain obstructed at the federal and state levels by strong opposition from national anti-gun-regulation groups, according to the editors. They note that some professional organizations have responded to this crisis by issuing comprehensive policy statements and practice guidelines for frontline workers, but little guidance exists for social work practice.
Contributors to the special edition delve into the relationship of firearm violence to race, gender and geography, as well as a less-publicized aspect — suicide.
Articles focus on the impact of firearm safety legislation on homicide rates and data that show differences in effectiveness for black and white populations. Another article looks at how fear of crime and racial bias influence gun ownership, especially for white people. A literature review of gun violence published in social work journals since the 1990s identifies the strengths and weaknesses of existing scholarship. Another literature review of community-based gun violence interventions suggests the value of systems-based approaches.
An article by Kaplan and his co-authors looks at the effects of firearm control policies on suicide rates for men, a “hidden epidemic” that accounts for the majority of deaths — not only of suicides but all gun-related deaths nationwide.
“One of the things we tried to do with the hidden epidemic paper was to even dig deeper and show that suicides involving firearms are even more hidden than other forms of gun violence, which often get most of the attention,” Kaplan said. “Most gun deaths in the country are suicides.”
At one level, the more guns in a community and the more guns in a state, the greater the age-adjusted firearm suicide rate, according to the article. “There are policy levers that we identified,” Kaplan explained. “So this is an epidemic that may be amenable to policies that would restrict people’s access, population-level access, to guns.”
In a “Viewpoint” article, Kaplan writes that “evidence suggests firearm-means restriction and firearm-suicide prevention represent gaps in social work education and practice, offering opportunities for universities and continuing education programs.” By increasing knowledge in this area, social workers can effectively engage their communities and advocate for stricter firearms laws. When enacted statewide, such laws lead to decreased numbers of firearm suicides.
A “Practice Forum” in the volume describes how social workers who were already engaged in a community-violence-prevention initiative responded to local outrage over the shooting of Alton Sterling, a 37-year-old black man and father of five who was shot and killed by Baton Rouge police in 2016.
“Social workers have an important role to play in supporting communities to heal and promoting community health in the aftermath of gun violence and trauma,” the authors conclude.
“Hopefully, it’s the start of a conversation that people will have about resorting to means that are more policy-oriented approaches,” Kaplan said. But he cautioned, “This is not a problem that will be resolved or addressed adequately on a one-by-one individual level. This is a much larger problem that needs to be addressed in a more upstream, universal way.”
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has named UCLA Luskin Professor of Social Welfare Mark S. Kaplan to a board of experts on the prevention of violence and injuries. Kaplan will serve a four-year term on the Board of Scientific Counselors for the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, a branch of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC reports that 214,000 people die from injury every year in the United States, and millions who survive an injury face lifelong mental, physical and financial problems. The board will advise the federal agencies on a variety of research areas to help set priorities and improve public health. “This is an incredible career achievement,” Social Welfare chair Laura Abrams said of the appointment. Kaplan’s research has focused on understanding suicide risk factors among veterans, seniors and other vulnerable populations. The CDC reports that suicide is one of just three leading causes of death that are on the rise. Members of the Board of Scientific Counselors represent several disciplines and include epidemiologists, statisticians, trauma surgeons, behavioral scientists, health economists, political scientists and criminologists.
Professor of Social Welfare Mark S. Kaplan joined other experts in a recent KPCC broadcast following recent high-profile suicides that included celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain and designer Kate Spade. “Suicide is a remarkable public health issue because it is to some extent a hidden problem and in some cases almost a hidden epidemic. … And it is a remarkable problem because it is also associated with firearms,” said Kaplan, who studies suicide risk among vulnerable populations. Kaplan noted that of the approximately 45,000 yearly suicide deaths, half involve the use of firearms.
By Stan Paul
The rate of suicides by drug intoxication in the United States may be vastly underreported and misclassified, according to a new study co-written by Mark S. Kaplan, professor of social welfare at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs.
The study was published online Jan. 10 in the journal PLOS ONE. The researchers report that the drug suicide rate in the United States rose nearly one-quarter (24 percent) between 2000 and 2016, and the accidental opioid and other drug intoxication death rate increased by 312 percent. This rate gap suggests an increase in suicide undercounting, according to the multidisciplinary international team of researchers led by Ian Rockett of West Virginia University School of Public Health.
“Unfortunately, part of the problem is due to serious under-resourcing of state and local death investigation systems throughout most of the U.S.,” said Kaplan, whose research has focused on using population-wide data to understand suicide risk factors among veterans, seniors and other vulnerable populations. Kaplan added that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently reported more than 63,000 drug deaths in 2016, up from 52,000 in 2015.
“Many of these deaths were probably suicides, yet reported as accidental self-poisoning rather than intentional self-harm, particularly among the middle-aged,” Kaplan said.
The researchers report that suicide notes and psychiatric history, including a prior suicide attempt or diagnosed depression, are much more important in helping medical examiners and coroners identify drug suicides than suicides by more violent and obvious methods. The new research further shows this evidence is absent in a large majority of suicide and possible suicide cases.
“A suicide note, prior suicide attempt or affective disorder was documented in less than one-third of suicides and one-quarter of undetermined deaths,” the research team reported in the study. The researchers cited larger prevalence gaps among drug intoxication cases than gunshot or hanging cases.
“Our incorporation of undetermined deaths, as well as registered suicides, not only provided a window on the nature of suicide misclassification within the undetermined death category, but within the accident category — as a much larger reservoir for obscuring drug intoxication suicides,” the researchers wrote in the report.
The opioid epidemic in the United States is also exacerbating problems with suicide accounting, the researchers report. And that severely impedes the understanding and prevention of suicide and drug deaths nationally.
The team analyzed data from the Restricted Access Database in the National Violent Death Reporting System, which is administered by the CDC.
UCLA Social Welfare co-hosted a reception with the Pacific Region Universities at the Society for Social Work and Research (SSWR) Conference in Washington D.C. on Friday, Jan. 12. During the conference, many UCLA Luskin faculty, students and recent graduates made presentations about topics of interest and recent research. Here is a list of presenters and topics:
- Qualities of Successful Re-Entry Programs for Young Men: A Focus Group Study
- From Research to Policy: How One Good Idea Can Influence State Law
- Social Work Research in the Current Presidential Administration: Responsibility, Ethics, and Social Justice
- Social Worker, Psychologist, or Psychiatrist: Does Profession Matter for Treatment Decisions for Antisocially Behaving Youth?
- South African Adult Caregivers as “Protective Shields”: Serving as a Buffer Between Precarious Neighborhood Conditions, Food Insecurity, and Youth Risk Behaviors
- I’m More Driven Now: Resilience and Resistance Among Transgender and Gender Expansive Youth Experiencing Homelessness
- Hearing Youth Voices: Experiences of Civic Empowerment Among Urban Youth (presented by Jason Anthony Plummer)
- In Their Own Words: Responses of Latinx Youth to the 2016 Presidential Election (presented by Rachel Wells)
Students and Recent Graduates
Skye Allmang, Kristina Lovato-Hermann, Lauren Willner, Rachel Wells
- Social Work Research in the Current Presidential Administration: Responsibility, Ethics, and Social Justice
Joanna L. Barreras
- Does Growing up with Father Involvement Matter? Investigating the Association of Black Women’s Early Father Involvement to Early Childbearing
- Living in Public Housing: A Mother’s Childhood Contact with a Father Predicts Offspring’s Contact with Their Father
- Assessing the Effectiveness of City-Wide Trauma-Informed Trainings
- Enforced Separations: A Qualitative Examination on the Impact of Parental Deportation on Latino-a Youth and Families
Jason Anthony Plummer
Sarah Soakai (Urban Planning)
- The Impact of ‘Compassionate Disruption’ Policies on Indigenous Populations: The Criminalization of Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander Houseless in Hawaii
- Increasing Our Understanding of Macro Practice in Low-Income Neighborhoods: A Teaching Case Study of a Nonprofit Organization
Brenda A. Tully
Mark S. Kaplan, Dr.P.H., is professor of Social Welfare at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs and holds adjunct appointments in psychiatry at the Oregon Health & Science University and in epidemiology and community medicine at the University of Ottawa. He received his doctorate in public health from the University of California, Berkeley and holds master’s degrees in social work and public health with postdoctoral training in preventive medicine at the University of Southern California. His research, funded by the National Institutes of Health and private foundations, has focused on using population-wide data to understand suicide risk factors among veterans, seniors and other vulnerable populations.
Dr. Kaplan is the recipient of a Distinguished Investigator Award from the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. He has contributed to state and federal suicide prevention initiatives. Dr. Kaplan testified before the Senate Special Committee on Aging at its hearing on veterans’ health and was a member of the Expert Panel on the VA Blue Ribbon Work Group on Suicide Prevention in the Veteran Population. He serves as a scientific advisor to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.
Currently, he is principal investigator on two National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism funded projects: “Acute alcohol use and suicide” and “Economic contraction and alcohol-associated suicides: A multi-level analysis.”