WALTHAM, MA | January 15, 2013
EDC recommends that communications about U.S. military and veteran suicides focus more on solutions and prevention and less on statistics, tragic stories of hopelessness, and system failures, which have been much more prevalent. This and other EDC recommendations appear in a commentary published in the January issue of the American Journal of Public Health.
The authors make recommendations for improved messaging based on four areas of research, briefly illustrated with recent examples. The impetus for the commentary came from expert panel reports released in 2008 and 2010 citing problems with messaging about military and veteran suicides. For example, one report produced by an independent task force convened by the Department of Defense (DoD) found that, at the time, messaging from military leaders and other sources often did not support prevention efforts and may even have been undermining them. Specifically, public messages that focused on statistics and used descriptors such as epidemic implied that military and veteran suicides were more common than they actually were. Also many messages missed opportunities to promote positive prevention messages. These examples are concerning because previous research shows that certain types of media coverage can increase suicides among individuals at risk.
“We’re concerned that repetitive coverage about suicide deaths may paint a hopeless picture and obscure the reality—most current and former service members are showing tremendous coping and resiliency,” said EDC lead author Linda Langford. “We want to make sure we’re telling those success stories too.”
EDC’s recommendations to encourage safer and more effective messages include the following:
- Ensure messages include a clear action step
- Publicize 24-hour crisis lines and other resources
- Disseminate first-person stories of service members and veterans who have struggled with serious life stressors and successfully coped with them
Langford notes that the need for changes in messaging goes beyond the military-veteran context. The National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention has prioritized “changing the conversation about suicide to include more discussion about help, hope, social support, and recovery.” The military and veteran communities have already made substantial changes to its messaging. “In many ways,” says Langford, “the veteran and military world is ahead of the rest of the country in creating research-based messaging that promotes help and solutions.”
For example, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) created a media campaign to promote its 24-hour Veterans Crisis Line (800-273-8255) and developed a campaign (www.MakeTheConnection.net) that features first-person stories of veterans who have struggled and successfully overcome their challenges. The DoD-funded RealWarriors campaign and website for service members includes first-person stories and resources. Also, DoD and VA leaders are now disseminating more prevention-oriented messages. For example, the DoD and VA collaborated and adopted the VA theme “Stand By Them” for the 2012National Suicide Prevention and Awareness Month in September and used that opportunity to remind the military and veteran communities of the signs to look for, how to help a distressed friend or loved one, and available resources.
EDC co-author David Litts says, “We hope that the media, researchers, organizations, and others communicating about military personnel and veterans follow the lead of the VA and DoD and disseminate messages that make it clear that the vast majority of service members and veterans in distress find ways to overcome and survive. They should also promote available treatment and solutions, offer resources, and tell individual stories of coping.”
The full study, “Using Science to Improve Communications About Suicide Among Military and Veteran Populations: Looking for a Few Good Messages,” is available online at http://ajph.aphapublications.org/doi/abs/10.2105/AJPH.2012.300905. Members of the American Public Health Association may access it for free; for others a fee is required.
Education Development Center, Inc. (EDC), is a global nonprofit organization that addresses some of the world’s most urgent challenges in education, health, and international development. EDC manages more than 250 projects in 30 countries. Visit edc.org.