This is an update to an update, and sad one too. The Washington Post today reported that Lt. Elizabeth Whiteside attempted to kill herself for a second time. The report, which came as the lede to a larger story on the record level of attempted and completed suicides among active duty soldiers in 2007, goes on to say that she did so the day that the army finally announced that it was dropping charges against her for incidents during her first suicide attempt, during which she pointed her gun at fellow soldiers.
On this second attempt, Whiteside attempted to overdose on antidepressants and other drugs. She left a note that rad, in part, “I’m very disappointed with the Army,” …Hopefully this will help other soldiers.”
Whiteside is now in stable condition, and is due for a discharge from the Army that will preserve her access to mental health benefits. But a central implication of her story is that many others don’t make it.
There is an invaluable review of different strands of that larger story at Mike Dunford’s The Questionable Authority blog.
More than just covering the numbers, Dunford looks at possible causes for the wave of suicides, and gives a brief, depressing introduction to the structural problems within the Army that obstruct attempts to improve the mental health care system available to American service men and women.
Phil Carter’s Intel Dump picks up on the story too, leading with the New England Journal of Medicine report on the link between Traumatic Brain Injury (a blow to or into the brain) and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. There is a vigorous comment thread there, mostly populated by current or retired service members that gets at some of the problems in the military’s handling of soldiers/marines with mental injuries suffered in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Given all that, I’ll just make the point I’ve tried to argue in several other posts: that when we talk about problems in the public engagement with science, it seems to me that it isn’t a deficit in specific knowledge that matters. Rather, it’s the habit of mind with which scientists approach empirical questions.
Consider this, from the Army’s first response to Lt. Whiteside’s case:
“Military psychiatrists at Walter Reed who examined Whiteside after she recovered from her self-inflicted gunshot wound diagnosed her with a severe mental disorder, possibly triggered by the stresses of a war zone. But Whiteside’s superiors considered her mental illness “an excuse” for criminal conduct, according to documents obtained by The Washington Post.”
At the hearing, Wolfe, who had already warned Whiteside’s lawyer of the risk of using a “psychobabble” defense, pressed a senior psychiatrist at Walter Reed to justify his diagnosis.”
If your default on neuroscience is that it is “psychobabble” then, Houston, we have a problem.
In particular, neuroscience understands – this is a true banality – that mind is a phenomenon of brain; dozens, hundreds of lines of evidence show that beneath disordered behavior are physiological derangements of the brain. If you are in charge of veterans who have undergone all kinds of stress, you don’t need to know what the latest fMRI study shows – but you do need to know that much.
Image: Francisco de Goya, “The Charge of the Mamelukes,” 1814, The reproduction is part of a collection of reproductions compiled by The Yorck Project. The compilation copyright is held by Zenodot Verlagsgesellschaft mbH and licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License