- By Thomas E. RicksThomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military for the Washington Post from 2000 through 2008. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By Kayla Williams
Best Defense guest columnist
Rising suicide rates among military personnel and veterans have received a great deal of attention from the media, advocacy organizations, and pundits. While I appreciate the efforts to raise awareness and address the problem, I am gravely concerned about the tone and method of much of this coverage, some of which reminds me of Mrs. Lovejoy on The Simpsons, flinging her hand to her forehead and gasping “Won’t somebody think of the children?!” without providing solutions.
Rather than simply urging DoD and VA to do “something” or “more,” we should push for specific changes like those identified by CNAS in Losing the Battle and increased use of evidence-based programs such as those identified in the RAND study The War Within.
The media should acknowledge their responsibility to cover military and veteran suicides carefully. There is a proven “contagion effect” for suicide, and there are widely available recommendations for journalists to follow in order to reduce imitations and encourage help-seeking. Unfortunately, most coverage does not follow those recommendations. An article in Stars and Stripes last week is, in my opinion, an egregious example of this — it is irresponsible and hypocritical to note that VA failed to provide the hotline number to someone in crisis while not providing it!* Every article on military and veteran suicide should feature the crisis line, 800-273-TALK (veterans press 1). Advocates who go on TV to talk about military and veteran suicides should insist that it be included on-screen and mention it at least once. If you are active in this community and don’t have the number memorized, you are wrong.
I certainly don’t hold advocates or the media uniquely responsible. DoD and VA have a long way to go in improving their response to high suicide rates, even though they are making progress. However, this problem is too big for DoD or VA to address alone. I know how powerful the feelings of desperation can be, and it’s time for all of us to come together to act, rather than simply calling for someone else to do something. If you hear from or know of a veteran who is suicidal, point them toward the right resources — or call the hotline yourself and get them help. Change should start with each of us — and advocates, journalists, pundits, and bloggers must be aware that by ignoring available recommendations, they can actually make the problem worse rather than better. Learn the recommendations on how to cover suicide responsibly. Follow them. Lives depend on it.
Kayla Williams is author of Love My Rifle More Than You: Young and Female in the US Army.
*When I called @LeoShane out on this via Twitter recently, he responded, “It’s going in print that way, and we’re having a little trouble with the web layout. But all the resources will be up there.” At the time of this writing, neither a list or resources nor the crisis line had been added to the online version.