Guest Post: Michelle Sipics on Air Force Woo, Military Suicide and the Importance of Thinking Straight

Please feast your eyes and minds on another very sharp post from guest blogger (and graduate of the MIT Graduate Program in Science Writing) Michelle Sipics.  As always Michelle suffers no fools gladly:


After an unintentional but undeniably long hiatus, I am back at Inverse Square. My thanks to Tom for not holding my incredibly sporadic guest-posting against me.

This post, like my previous two entries on IS, includes a discussion of mental health. But there’s more to the discussion than that topic alone: there’s also the issue of pseudo-science and its seemingly indefatigable ability to keep creeping into society.

The election of Barack Obama to the presidency of the United States gave great hope to those of us who love and respect science and what it can accomplish for this country and for the world, on both individual and societal levels. His appointment of Steven Chu as Energy Secretary for the new administration was a particularly poignant ray of light after eight years of growing darkness—and while we certainly can’t expect one man to immediately or completely repair the damage that has been done to scientific efforts, many of Obama’s other first steps in office have been promising.

Contrast that, then, with today’s news from the US military: the Air Force plans to train combat personnel to perform acupuncture.

Now, I write this post knowing that so-called “alternative medicine” is often a lightning rod for decidedly irrational discourse. However, I am willing to take a stab (no pun intended, I promise) at calmly explaining why this move by the Air Force sets a bad precedent for military health services, and for the country as a whole.

Just three days ago a new meta-analysis was published in the British Medical Journal, in which the authors examined a host of previous studies on the efficacy of acupuncture in treating pain. There is already a fairly thorough analysis of this paper available over at ScienceBlogs, so I’ll cut right to the chase: there is little to no evidence that the reported effectiveness of acupuncture in treating pain is due to anything more than the placebo effect.

Now, let’s not completely discount the placebo effect. The fact is, if people actually feel better after a treatment—even if the treatment itself is a complete hoax—they’ve experienced some benefit from it, which is fine. But that is hardly enough to advocate pushing something with no proven medical value into combat-stage use in the United States Military. As the chief of the acupuncture clinic at Andrews Air Force base said (yes, the Air Force has an acupuncture clinic), “The history of military medicine is rich in development, and a lot of people say that if the military is using it, then it must be good for the civilian world.”

The slippery slope is plain to see. Well gee, if the military is using it, it must be real!

This particular issue irritated me even more than it might have on its own, as it came on the heels of the Army’s announcement that a record number of suicides occurred among its soldiers last year, far surpassing the civilian suicide rate. The most recent CDC numbers for the US civilian population show about 11 suicides per 100,000 individuals in 2004, while the Army suicides from 2008 are expected to equate to a rate of 20.2 per 100,000 (adjusted to take into account the difference in demographics between enlisted Army personnel and the civilian population). And those numbers don’t include suicides that take place after a soldier finishes his or her enlistment. The Marine Corps has released similar figures.

Why is this so maddening? Well, aside from the fact that knowing that 128 or more Army soldiers killed themselves last year leaves me extremely depressed and full of sympathy for their families, we have this little quote from the Associated Press article:

“Why do the numbers keep going up? We cannot tell you,” said Army Secretary Pete Geren.

Really? You can’t tell us? That’s funny, because one of your psychiatric consultants has identified at least one major problem.

At the Pentagon on Thursday, Col. Elspeth Ritchie, a psychiatric consultant to the Army surgeon general, made a plea for more professionals to sign on to work for the military.

Finally, someone in the military has acknowledged a long-standing problem: there aren’t nearly enough psychiatric professionals. Unfortunately for them, this isn’t actually news. The same statements were made last year, when similar articles appeared about the number of military suicides reported for 2007. And I find it extremely hard to believe that the military, if it really wanted to, couldn’t find a reasonable number of trained professionals to provide psychiatric support for their soldiers—for our soldiers.

Of course, I must acknowledge that military men and women are under extraordinary stress, finding themselves in situations every day that I already know I wouldn’t be able to deal with. They’re away from their families for extended periods of time; they’re in unfamiliar environments; they’re given responsibility for other human lives, whether friendly colleagues, foreign enemies, or innocent civilians. That is an overwhelming and probably indescribable amount of pressure. Even with the best treatment in the world, it’s not likely that all military suicides can be prevented. But we have to do better than this.

Now, I don’t want to be one of those writers who says, “Why is our tax money funding acupuncture when it could be paying for more psychiatric specialists to prevent suicides?!” That’s not how things work in reality, and it’s a pointless argument. But it does concern me that we have two known problems here: physical injuries in Air Force personnel, for which the action being taken is to fund and expand the practice of pseudo-science; and suicide risk in Army (and general Military) personnel, for which the action being taken is… issuing reassuring press release statements?

Acknowledging a problem is only the first step to solving it, and acknowledging it repeatedly without taking additional action doesn’t get you any more points. Instead of hearing yet another, “Yes, we recognize that the high suicide rate of our troops is a problem” statement from the Army, how about an acknowledgement from the Air Force that they’re spending taxpayer dollars on unproven magic needle technology that stands no chance of providing actual therapeutic benefits for anyone in our military?

Image:  David Loong, “One Can Buy Snake Oil Tablets in Marrakech,” 2006.  Reproduced under a Creative Commons ShareAlike 2.o license.

Explore posts in the same categories: bad ideas, bad science, mental illness, Military Follies, War, Who thought that was a good idea?

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