On the suicide front, there was some really bad news and a shred of good news on the front page of my local newspaper last week. The bad news: 154 active duty, American troops killed themselves during the first 155 days of this year. That’s nearly one suicide every day. What this means is that more troops are dying of suicide than bullets or IEDs.
The shred of good news is that this story ran on the front page of our local newspaper – above the fold. Even Aljazeera ran it as the lead story on its homepage. Unfortunately, the New York Times, Washington Post and Los Angeles Times did not run the story on their front pages.
But at least some editors around the country thought it was important enough news to get on the front page. Which is really good news.
Newspapers generally don’t cover suicides unless the suicide has inconvenienced our lives, has a high rubber-necking score or you are famous. I know this is morbid, but I have been a journalist for 30 years and I know about these things.
For example, if someone jumps from a highway overpass during rush hour causing a massive traffic jam – that is news. Or person shoots himself at the local shopping mall – that’s news. When famed NFL linebacker Junior Seau puts a gun to his chest and pulls the trigger – that’s news.
On the police scanner in the newsroom, a suicide often comes across as a signal 7 – dead person – which causes the cop reporter to pause. If the signal 7 becomes a signal 32 – suicide – it’s back to work. We might check out the address of the police call to make sure the person isn’t notable but otherwise, that’s it. Newspapers do this to respect the family. Suicide is a painful, private matter.
The unintentional consequence of this policy is that the prevalence of suicide is misrepresented. Out of sight, out of mind. It also perpetuates the stigma of suicide as a dirty little secret that should be discussed in a whisper. I have known people who have killed themselves. The last thing a grieving family needs is an article about the suicide in the paper.
As someone who has gone public with her two suicide attempts, I also understand the stigma and prevalence of suicide. You cannot imagine how many people have confided in me that they have planned their own suicide or even tried to “do it.”
So, for me, an article on the front page about suicide, especially suicide in the military, was good news. Robert Burns, the Associated Press reporter who wrote the story, did a brilliant job of conveying the seriousness of suicides in the military by juxtaposing the number of military suicides this year – 154 – to the number of days that had passed this year – 155. That’s nearly one suicide every day – a statistic that has far more impact than merely saying there have been 154 suicides in the first five months of 2012.
Juxtapose the number of military suicides, 154, to the number of combat deaths during the same time – about 50 percent more – and you get a very accurate picture of how serious the problem is. If the numbers don’t convince you, Burns reminds readers of the recent controversy involving Major General Dana Pittard, who wrote in his blog in January that a soldier considering suicide should “act like an adult.”
“I have now come to the conclusion that suicide is an absolutely selfish act. Soldiers who commit suicide leave their families, their buddies and their units to literally clean up their mess. There is nothing noble about suicide. I care about each and every one of our Soldiers, family members and civilians at Fort Bliss. I know there are a lot of people hurting out there, especially with the future Army personnel cuts on the horizon. If you are hurting mentally or emotionally, then seek and get help; but don’t resort to taking your own life. I am personally fed up with Soldiers who are choosing to take their own lives so that others can clean up their mess. Be an adult, act like an adult, and deal with your real-life problems like the rest of us. SEEK HELP!“
Burns did a great job of giving the story perspective. A few editors around the country gave it great play on the front page. As for Major General Dana Pittard, his comments drew a public rebuke from the Army, including Army Martin Dempsey, commander of the Joint Chiefs of Staft who said he disagrees with Pittard “in the strongest possible terms.”
On June 6th, when the suicide statistics cited in Burns’ story were released, Pittard blogged again about suicide. This time, with a little more compassion:
“We must all continue to do what we can to reduce the perceived stigma that seeking behavioral health care will negatively affect a Soldier’s career. It takes an amazing amount of courage and strength to take the first step; individuals should be encouraged and commended, not condemned. My family and I sought help and received behavioral health care a few years ago – it was very beneficial to us.
Keep looking after each other and stepping up to help your battle buddies. Leaders, continue your intrusive, yet caring, leadership style. We have had lots of successful cases of Soldiers intervening to save their buddies from suicide. We have now gone more than 60 days without a preventable Soldier death. Keep up the great work!”