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Kevlar for the Mind: Full story on military suicides can be complex

Feb. 23, 2012 - 02:14PM   |   Last Updated: Feb. 23, 2012 - 02:14PM  |  
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Q. As a retired Marine colonel, I am constantly worried about the emotional health of our fighting men and women. Therefore, I try to follow the most current information about the problem of suicide in the military. I know that the latest results for the Army have been released, but I can't tell if it's good or bad.

A. Suicides continue to be a significant problem for the military. However, depending on which news article you read and the impression the author and editor are attempting to shape, you can come away with an incomplete picture.

Consider a Jan. 30 Army Times article with the headline: "Overall suicides down 10% for 2011." At face value, this seems like great news. It actually is great news. But the story also carried a secondary headline: "Active-duty deaths, however, reach new high."

The story explains that suicides among active-duty, National Guard and reserve soldiers dropped from 305 in 2010 to 278 in 2011 a decline of almost 10 percent but among active-duty soldiers specifically, suicides hit a record high of 164.

That effort to capture both sides of a complex issue was not quite as prominent in two other news articles on the same subject.

In its Jan. 19 edition, USA Today's headline read: "Army suicide rates decline for first time in 4 years." The story never mentioned that active-duty suicides, specifically, are at an all-time high.

The New York Times emphasized the other side of the issue with this headline: "Active-duty soldiers take their own lives at record rate."

That story did mention in its first paragraph that the overall suicide rate, when Guard and reserve troops are included, had declined slightly.

Both stories technically are accurate, but their disparate approaches emphasize different aspects of a complex issue and allow for different conclusions to be drawn.

We are bombarded daily with such sound bites and headlines. In a fast-moving digital world in which we all feel perpetually pressed for time, sound bites and headlines often form the basis of our perceptions of important issues.

Gaining a complete picture of these kinds of complicated issues requires getting beyond the sound bites and headlines devices that are meant to grab your attention more than inform your opinion.

Without that complete picture, problems such as suicides and other mental health issues such as post-traumatic stress disorder become that much more difficult to address.

Bret A. Moore is a clinical psychologist who served in Iraq and is the author of "Wheels Down: Adjusting to Life after Deployment." Email"> Names and identifying details will be kept confidential. This column is for informational purposes only. Readers should see a mental health professional or physician for mental health problems.

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