February 19, 2013
Two sobering statistics have been shaping much of the media coverage about suicide among military members and veterans. A recent report from the Department of Veterans Affairs found that 22 veterans die by suicide each day in the United States, more than it had previously estimated. And in January, the Pentagon reported that 349 members of the U.S. military died by suicide in 2012.
The statistics seem to paint a gloomy picture of the mental health of U.S. military members and veterans. However, EDC’s David Litts, a senior director at the Suicide Prevention Resource Center, and also a veteran of the U.S. Air Force, believes that unbalanced coverage of suicide risk among veterans and men and women in uniform can paint an inaccurate picture of their mental health. Further, it may actually prevent those in crisis from searching for help. He says the media should begin to cover what he sees as the bigger story of veterans’ mental health: those who have struggled with thoughts of suicide—and lived.
Q: What is the real story about mental health and the military?
Litts: The real story is that most men and women in uniform, even those who have seen a lot of combat, are finding support and remain resilient. They are not killing themselves. The rate of suicide in the military is less than 20 per 100,000. And though this is the highest it has ever been, it still means that the other 99.9 percent of military members are coping and adapting.
Suicide and suicide risk are very complex. Every person who ends up taking his or her life takes a unique path to a common destination. You can’t just put a block across one path and expect to have a significant impact on the suicide rate. You need comprehensive solutions.
Q: Do you think the media covers military suicide accurately?
Litts: The way the media covers the whole issue of military mental health gives the impression that suicide is more prevalent than it really is. It often implies that all or most military members and veterans are broken. Nearly all the reporting is on one aspect of the problem: the failures and the tragedies.
For example, military suicide is often inaccurately referred to as an “epidemic.” Also, a recent TIME magazine cover story referred to the rate of suicide in the military with the headline “One A Day.” These descriptions sensationalize the issue and lead to a distorted picture of service members’ mental health. It’s good to have the facts about suicide presented in the news, but they have to be presented in context.
Q: Why are you concerned with the way the media covers suicide in the military?
Litts: Members of the military who find themselves in severe distress may assume, from media coverage, that a lot more of their peers are dying by suicide than is really occurring. This may influence their own susceptibility to making a suicide attempt. In fact, there is a body of research that connects high-visibility news coverage and reporting of suicide with increased suicide rates.
Not telling the other side of the story—that there are many times more people who were able to get the help they needed, found support, or were resilient enough to go on to live satisfying lives—presents a distorted picture of reality. It also misses a huge opportunity to help military members and veterans learn about all of the resources and support networks that do exist.
Q: What types of prevention programs are making a difference?
Litts: As an Air Force veteran, I draw a lot of lessons from the way the Air Force shaped its suicide prevention program in the 1990s. They created a culture that values help-seeking and that supports people who get help early, when problems are beginning to emerge and before they become crises.
With my EDC colleague, Linda Langford, I have been involved with Make the Connection, a VA-funded social marketing campaign that contains stories upon stories of veterans who have gotten help, who have found support, and who have been resilient in the face of crisis. Make the Connection is helping to open doors for many veterans who might have been hesitant to seek mental health assistance at the VA.
Another successful program has been the VA’s Veterans Crisis Line—a 24/7, confidential hotline, chat, and text service for veterans, service members, and their families. Since 2009, use of the line has increased significantly and now averages nearly 15,000 calls per month. Eighty percent of the calls come from men. A large portion of these callers eventually engage in mental health treatment or other supports. For three percent of these calls, the VA initiates a 911-mediated rescue, due to the imminent risk of the caller. The vast majority of these rescues are “saves.”
There are no easy answers when it comes to preventing suicide, but these interventions are making a big difference.