Thursday, May 16, 2013

Note to New York Times reporters: read the New York Times

Have a look at this well-intentioned, oddly blinkered story in today's New York Times, titled "Baffling Rise in Suicides Plagues the U.S. Military." Like many reporters before them, James Dao and Andrew Lehren report that suicides in the military have risen to record levels.  What they don't mention is the fact that prescriptions of psychotropic drugs, many of them with black box warnings for suicide, have also risen to record levels. 

It was only a month ago that psychiatrist Richard Friedman wrote in the Times:

"Worse, according to data not reported on until now, the military evidently responded to stress that afflicts soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan primarily by drugging soldiers on the front lines. Data that I have obtained directly from Tricare Management Activity, the division of the Department of Defense that manages health care services for the military, shows that there has been a giant, 682 percent increase in the number of psychoactive drugs — antipsychotics, sedatives, stimulants and mood stabilizers — prescribed to our troops between 2005 and 2011. That’s right. A nearly 700 percent increase — despite a steady reduction in combat troop levels since 2008."

In fact, several months before Friedman's op-ed, Paul Scott made an even more persuasive case in Men's Journal.  

"American soldiers (active soldiers as well as retired) have never been more medicated than they are now: In 2010, more than 213,000 service members (roughly 20 percent of active-duty military) were taking medications the military considered "high risk" – from epilepsy drugs to psychiatric pills like Seroquel. But what's more incredible is that Seroquel and other antipsychotics are expensive (as much as $10 a dose) and not proven to be effective in treating the very conditions for which the military and VA most often prescribe them: insomnia and PTSD. But that didn't prevent their use by the military from increasing tenfold between 2002 and 2009."


"The causes of suicide are complex, and no single factor is to blame for the rise in self-harm. To their credit, the military and the VA have launched a help line, funded studies, advocated for talk therapies, researched alternative methods, and hired thousands of new mental-health professionals. But they have yet to question a glaring contradiction at work when a soaring number of veterans and soldiers are taking medications that come with suicide warnings. It's a group of drugs that include antidepressants, benzodiazepines, anticonvulsants, and certain atypical antipsychotics like Seroquel. Dr. Peter Breggin, a psychiatrist who testified before Congress about veterans' medication and suicide in 2010, says, "I'd say it is near-criminal to send young men and women off to combat with a 180-day supply of drugs that can cause an increase in violent suicide."

How is it possible that Times reporters can write a lengthy, front-page story on this "baffling" problem and fail even to mention the rise in psychotropic drug prescriptions as a possible contributing factor?

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