Distorted thinking on military mental health

CHRIS HONDROS/Getty Images In previous posts, I’ve lamented the lack of proper health care (particularly mental health) for veterans returning from Iraq in Afghanistan, lauding both the Washington Post for its “Walter Reed and Beyond” series, and the New York Times for its “War Torn” series. The Post chose to tackle the story of vets ...

596785_iraqsoldier_05.jpg
596785_iraqsoldier_05.jpg

CHRIS HONDROS/Getty Images

In previous posts, I've lamented the lack of proper health care (particularly mental health) for veterans returning from Iraq in Afghanistan, lauding both the Washington Post for its "Walter Reed and Beyond" series, and the New York Times for its "War Torn" series. The Post chose to tackle the story of vets from the beds of one hospital, whereas the NYT chose to report on veterans who had been charged with killing after returning home.

Now the NYT is under attack for its approach to the story. It is accused of more or less painting veterans as murderers and sensationalizing the plight of those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Lt. Col. Bob Bateman, normally a staunch defender of journalists, says that the NYT is playing a dangerous game with statistics, overstating the 121 cases that the newspaper uncovered as a "quiet phenomenon," when there is a population of 700,000 returning veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan. Moreover, of those 121 cases, 22 were DUIs, two were speeding accidents, and five cases resulted in exonerations of the accused killers. Hardly a trend. Bateman parses more numbers and says one could make an equally faulty argument: that veterans of active combat in Iraq and Afghanistan are, in fact, less likely to commit homicide than the population at large. (With the likely reasoning being that military training teaches young men and women to become more responsible citizens.) Bateman accuses the Times of "sloppy thinking... that does not help anyone." 

CHRIS HONDROS/Getty Images

In previous posts, I’ve lamented the lack of proper health care (particularly mental health) for veterans returning from Iraq in Afghanistan, lauding both the Washington Post for its “Walter Reed and Beyond” series, and the New York Times for its “War Torn” series. The Post chose to tackle the story of vets from the beds of one hospital, whereas the NYT chose to report on veterans who had been charged with killing after returning home.

Now the NYT is under attack for its approach to the story. It is accused of more or less painting veterans as murderers and sensationalizing the plight of those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Lt. Col. Bob Bateman, normally a staunch defender of journalists, says that the NYT is playing a dangerous game with statistics, overstating the 121 cases that the newspaper uncovered as a “quiet phenomenon,” when there is a population of 700,000 returning veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan. Moreover, of those 121 cases, 22 were DUIs, two were speeding accidents, and five cases resulted in exonerations of the accused killers. Hardly a trend. Bateman parses more numbers and says one could make an equally faulty argument: that veterans of active combat in Iraq and Afghanistan are, in fact, less likely to commit homicide than the population at large. (With the likely reasoning being that military training teaches young men and women to become more responsible citizens.) Bateman accuses the Times of “sloppy thinking… that does not help anyone.” 

After much outcry, Clark Hoyt, the NYT public editor, basically agrees with the newspaper’s critics in his Sunday column:

[T]he questionable statistics muddy the message. A handful of killings caused by the stresses of war would be too many and cause for action. Sometimes, trying to turn such stories into data — with implications of statistical proof and that old journalistic convention, the trend — harms rather than helps.”

Both Bateman and Hoyt acknowledge that PTSD is a serious problem. But, Bateman concludes, “fear-mongering and drawing specious conclusions from incomplete data is no help.”

Indeed, it’s unfortunate that the the NYT‘s “creative” use of statistics opened the story up to valid criticism such as Bateman’s. In effect, it undermines the point that most people will draw from its series: that seeing combat has very real effects on the mental health of veterans, and that there simply needs to be more effort put into their care. Witness the State of the Union address on Monday. President Bush got the most sustained applause from both sides of Congress when he mentioned honoring veterans. A new study released today finds that PTSD, depression, and stress (but not brain injuries, as previously thought) are drivers behind symptoms afflicting returning vets. The stigma needs to be removed. The real health problems need to be addressed. And there needs to be no more sensationalizing about what it all means.

Christine Y. Chen is a senior editor at Foreign Policy.

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