Posted tagged ‘Suicide’

Yes Dear, I Remember When Women Were People Too

March 31, 2011

Yes Dear, I Do Remember When Women Were People Too

by Tom Levenson

Blogging  in haste whilst waiting out the sprout’s martial arts class, this from the ACLU blog seems an excruciatingly appropriate follow up to ABL’s post below:
On December 23, 2010, [Bei Bei] Shuai, a 34-year-old pregnant woman who was suffering from a major depressive disorder, attempted to take her own life. Friends found her in time and persuaded her to get help. Six days later, Shuai underwent cesarean surgery and delivered a premature newborn girl who, tragically, died four days later.

On March 14, 2011, Shuai was arrested, jailed, and charged with murder and attempted feticide. Had Shuai, who is being represented by National Advocates for Pregnant Women and local attorneys, not been pregnant when she attempted suicide, she would not have been charged with any crime at all.

I’m fair gobsmacked with outrage and sorrow at this.

Full disclosure: this story strikes home personally—there is a history of depression and associated suicide on one side of my family, and the thought that someone enduring that particularly vicious illness being further tortured by the modern inquisition is just grotesque.  No one who has either suffered major depression, nor anyone who has loved someone thus afflicted would see the state of Indiana’s actions as anything other than vicious.

That this action is enmeshed in religious and political fanaticism and intolerance of views other than those of particular faiths and cults does not excuse the behavior.  The reverse, in fact.

Beyond my personal revulsion and rage at those who would so use a woman already mired in sorrow for their own ends,* the only thing I want to add in this brief piece is that the actions of the state here are part and parcel of a pattern of GOP lawless exercise of state power under the color of law.  Here’s the ACLU blog again on the way Indiana prosecutors are abusing the criminal statutes at their disposal:
The state is misconstruing the criminal laws in this case in such a way that any pregnant woman could be prosecuted for doing (or attempting) anything that may put her health at risk, regardless of the outcome of her pregnancy.

That’s right: according to the ways the laws are being applied here, the state of Indiana believes that any pregnant woman who smokes or lives with a smoker, who works long hours on her feet, who is overweight, who doesn’t exercise, or who fails to get regular prenatal care, is a felon. And the list of ways these laws could be construed to unconstitutionally prosecute pregnant women goes on and on.

That is, as this report goes on to argue, in the view of the prosecution, women are not autonomous citizens.  They are wards of the state…and while I’m sure the earnest sex-phobic, women-denigrating apologists of the right (I’m looking at you, Ross Douthat) would argue that matters would never get this far, I don’t see how the theory of the Indiana prosecution wouldn’t stretch to cover the “reckless” behavior of any fertile, sexually active woman.

After all—if you don’t know whether or not you are pregnant, how can you responsibly risk any potential fetus by injesting the demon rum or what have you.  If there is any woman, or any friend to any woman out there who thinks that the GOP can be trusted with their body, they need to think long and hard on the show trial of Bei Bei Shuai

Image:  Cate Bischop Sorrow, before 1928

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

February 4, 2009

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.

More Tragedy: Brain and Mind, Iraq Suicides edition.

July 8, 2008

In this post, published here and over at Cosmic Variance, I looked through the story of Iraq veteran suicides to speculate on the implications of the spread from the neuroscience profession to the public of the idea that what we perceive as mind, as our selves, is actually a phenomenon of our material brains.

That’s an important notion, one taken as a commonplace by just about every neuro researcher I know that will, I still think, have a profound cultural impact, potentially as great as that of the concept of the descent of man from prior forms.

But then this story appears. Another man gone, to remind me and anyone who reads this of fact of tragedy that is the reality, the hard ground of fact and loss.

I have no deeper scientific argument that I want to pursue here, and I am not going to express any of the political thoughts that this story does evoke in me.

This is just a pause, to think about Joseph Patrick Dwyer, and those whose loss should not simply be aggregated into the accumulating totals — both the official count of war dead, and those, like Dwyer who have paid such a terrible price outside the neat categories of conflict caualties.

My deepest sympathy to the family and friends of PFC Dwyer.

Image: Francisco de Goya, “Desastre de la Guerra (Disasters of War)” 1810-11. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Burrowing into tragedy: a story behind the story of the Iraq War Suicides.

June 5, 2008

Cross Posted at Cosmic Variance (thanks Sean).

My thanks to all here who gave me such a warm welcome on Monday (and, again, to Sean for asking me here in the first place).

This post emerges out of this sad story of a week or so ago.

Over Memorial Day weekend this year there was a flurry of media coverage about the devastating psychological toll of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. The single most awful paragraph in the round-up:

“According to the Army, more than 2,000 active-duty soldiers attempted suicide or suffered serious self-inflicted injuries in 2007, compared to fewer than 500 such cases in 2002, the year before the United States invaded Iraq. A recent study by the nonprofit Rand Corp. found that 300,000 of the nearly 1.7 million soldiers who’ve served in Iraq or Afghanistan suffer from PTSD or a major mental illness, conditions that are worsened by lengthy deployments and, if left untreated, can lead to suicide.”

(For details and a link to a PDF of the Army report – go here.)

This report, obviously, is the simply the quantitative background to a surfeit of individual tragedy – but my point here is not that war produces terrible consequences.

Rather, the accounts of the Iraq War suicides — 115 current or former servicemen and women in 2007 – struck me for what was implied, but as far as I could find, not discussed in the mass media: the subtle and almost surreptitious way in which the brain-mind dichotomy is breaking down, both as science and as popular culture.

How so? It is, thankfully, becoming much more broadly understood within the military and beyond that “shell shock” is not malingering, or evidence of an essential weakness of moral fiber. PTSD is now understood as a disease, and as one that involves physical changes in the brain.

The cause and effect chain between the sight of horror and feelings of despair cannot, given this knowledge, omit the crucial link of the material substrate in which the altered and destructive emotions can emerge. PTSD becomes thus a medical, and not a spiritual pathology.

(This idea still faces some resistance, certainly. I launched my blog with a discussion of the attempt to court martial a soldier for the circumstances surrounding her suicide attempt. But even so, the Army is vastly further along in this area that it was in the Vietnam era and before.)

Similarly, depression is clearly understood as a disease with a physical pathology that underlies the malign sadness of the condition. (H/t the biologist Louis Wolpert for the term and his somewhat oddly detached but fascinating memoir of depression.)

This notion of the material basis of things we experience as our mental selves is not just confined to pathology. So-called smart drugs let us know how chemically malleable our selves can be.

More broadly, the study of neuroplasticity provides a physiological basis for the common sense notion that experience changes who we perceive ourselves to be.

All this seems to me to be a good thing, in the sense that (a) the study of the brain is yielding significant results that now or will soon greatly advance human well being; and (b) that the public seems to be taking on board some of the essential messages. The abuses (overmedication, anyone?) are certainly there. But to me, it is an unalloyed good thing that we have left the age of shell shock mostly behind us.

At the same time, I’m a bit surprised that the implications of this increasingly public expression of an essentially materialist view of mind haven’t flared up as a major battle in the science culture wars.

Just to rehearse the obvious: the problem with cosmology for the other side in the culture war is that it conflicts with the idea of the omnipresent omnipotence of God. The embarrassment of evolutionary biology is that it denies humankind a special place in that God’s creation, destroying the unique status of the human species as distinct from all the rest of the living world.

Now along comes neuroscience to make the powerful case that our most intimate sense of participating in the numinous is an illusion.

Instead, the trend of current neuroscience seems to argue that the enormously powerful sense each of us has of a self as distinct from the matter of which we are made is false. Our minds, our selves may be real—but they are the outcome of a purely material process taking place in the liter or so of grey stuff between our ears.

(There are dissenters to be sure, those that argue against the imperial materialism they see in contemporary neuroscience. See this essay for a forceful expression of that view.)

I do know that this line of thought leads down a very convoluted rabbit hole, and that’s not where I am trying to go just now.

Instead, the reports of the Iraq suicides demonstrated for me that the way the news of the materiality of mind is is slipping into our public culture without actually daring (or needing) to speaking its name.

That the problem of consciousness is still truly unsolved matters less in this arena than the fact of fMRI experiments that demonstrate the alterations in brain structure and metabolism associated with the stresses of war or the easing of the blank, black hole of depression. The very piecemeal state of the field helps mask its potentially inflammatory cultural implications.

To me this suggests two possibilities. One is that it is conceivable that when the penny finally drops, we might see backlash against technological interventions into the self like that which has impeded stem cell research in the U.S.

On the other hand, I don’t think that the public can be motivated or even bamboozled into blocking the basic science in this field. Too much rests on the work; any family that has experienced Alzheimers knows just how urgent the field may be — not to mention anyone with a loved one in harms way.

This actually gives me hope for a shift in the culture war. For all the time and energy wasted over the last several years defending the idea of science against attacks on evolution, with the cosmologists taking their lumps too – the science of mind could force a shift in the terms of engagement decisively in the right direction.

Or I could be guilty of another bout of wishful thinking. Thoughts?

Image: Brain in a Vat, article illustration. Offered in homage to my friend and source of wisdom, Hilary Putnam, who introduced the brain-in-a-vat thought experiment in this book. Source: Wikimedia Commons.