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Why the Suicide Rate Among Veterans Is Climbing

Question: What is behind the recent spike in army suicides?

Paul Rieckhoff:  There are a number of factors, but here's the bottom line: we lost 32 active duty soldiers to suicide in the month of June.  That's just the Army, that's just active duty, that's just in June.  If we lost 32 troops in Fallujah today, the national media would be focused on it, the President would be moving hell and high water, Secretary Gates would be saying, “Get to the bottom of this.”

But over the last few years, suicide rates have continued to climb.  Earlier this year, for a month in the winter, we lost more soldiers to suicide than we did to Al Qaeda.  So I think that's an important framework to understand going in.  The military does not have the suicide issue under control, and it's getting worse.  And there are a number of factors that go into this kind of cauldron that leads to suicides, but a big driving factor is that our people are tired; they are worn out.  They are not robots.

You can't send people back to Iraq and Afghanistan for 20th tours.  The President spoke at the Disabled American Veterans this week and brought up a soldier as someone who is inspiring, a soldier who was wounded.  The soldier was on his 10th tour... ten times to a combat zone, and he was 27 years old.  So at some point, the American public has to stand up and go, “Enough.”

We need to re-evaluate the situation.  Now, it doesn't have to be a draw-down in Iraq, it doesn't have to be a draw-down in Afghanistan.  It may be.  But it may be increasing the pool and addressing the fairness issue that is really hitting our community hard.  So when you take into account the fact that they're going back for repeated tours, there's a lack of family support, which is always going to be critical.  Divorce rates are very high, they're coming home to tough economy, there is a lack of public support for the war, which we know contributes to the stress, the combat tours are long.  Some folks in the Army have done 16-month tours, come home for a year, go back for another 16-month tour—that's a long time to be in a combat zone worried about whether or not you're gonna die.

So I think a lot of that has just started to stack up, and over time we've seen these suicide rates increase dramatically.  We need a national call to urgency.  I think the President has really been negligent in addressing this issue.  He needs to stand up and say, “This is a top issue for my administration.  This is a top issue for me,” and be specific in what he's gonna do about it.  It's great for him to talk about stigma, it's great for him to say, “If you need help, come and get some.”  But we also have to provide that help for when people do step forward, and right now that help is really lacking.

Does one party care more about veterans’ issues?

Paul Rieckhoff:  No.  I mean, right now, neither party is doing enough for veterans.  We, as an organization at IAVA, were extremely aggressive in criticizing the Bush administration and holding them accountable, and we're doing the same thing with the Obama administration.  I don't think any party has a monopoly on veterans.  I don't think any party loves veterans more than the other.  I think everybody has a moral obligation to support veterans. However, we need more action from both of them.

Just as an example, under President Obama's watch unemployment has risen.  Suicide has risen.  The disability backlog at the VA, which is close to a million, has stayed solid.  We're not making the progress we need, and the thing I'm most disturbed by is the continuing rhetoric out of the White House where they give the impression they've got everything under control.  It reminds me of the way people talked about Katrina.  It reminds me of the way the Bush administration talked about the insurgency in 2004 in Iraq when my guys were getting shot at.

There's a disconnect with reality that is really troubling, and that's where military families, veteran groups have to be more involved, have to be more vocal, and the American people need to pay attention to what we're saying.  We're kind of a canary in the coal mine here.  We're trying to call out and say, “Look at what's happening to our families.  Look at what's happening to our equipment, on a more basic level.”  And I think some of those calls for help and some of those flairs that we're sending up haven't really been addressed with the kind of urgency that we think is necessary.

Recorded August 2, 2010
Interviewed By Max Miller

Our soldiers aren’t robots; they are tired and worn out, and when they return home, they are returning to record unemployment.

Does conscious AI deserve rights?

If machines develop consciousness, or if we manage to give it to them, the human-robot dynamic will forever be different.

  • Does AI—and, more specifically, conscious AI—deserve moral rights? In this thought exploration, evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, ethics and tech professor Joanna Bryson, philosopher and cognitive scientist Susan Schneider, physicist Max Tegmark, philosopher Peter Singer, and bioethicist Glenn Cohen all weigh in on the question of AI rights.
  • Given the grave tragedy of slavery throughout human history, philosophers and technologists must answer this question ahead of technological development to avoid humanity creating a slave class of conscious beings.
  • One potential safeguard against that? Regulation. Once we define the context in which AI requires rights, the simplest solution may be to not build that thing.

A new hydrogel might be strong enough for knee replacements

Duke University researchers might have solved a half-century old problem.

Photo by Alexander Hassenstein/Getty Images
Technology & Innovation
  • Duke University researchers created a hydrogel that appears to be as strong and flexible as human cartilage.
  • The blend of three polymers provides enough flexibility and durability to mimic the knee.
  • The next step is to test this hydrogel in sheep; human use can take at least three years.
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Hints of the 4th dimension have been detected by physicists

What would it be like to experience the 4th dimension?

Two different experiments show hints of a 4th spatial dimension. Credit: Zilberberg Group / ETH Zürich
Technology & Innovation

Physicists have understood at least theoretically, that there may be higher dimensions, besides our normal three. The first clue came in 1905 when Einstein developed his theory of special relativity. Of course, by dimensions we’re talking about length, width, and height. Generally speaking, when we talk about a fourth dimension, it’s considered space-time. But here, physicists mean a spatial dimension beyond the normal three, not a parallel universe, as such dimensions are mistaken for in popular sci-fi shows.

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Predicting PTSD symptoms becomes possible with a new test

An algorithm may allow doctors to assess PTSD candidates for early intervention after traumatic ER visits.

Image source: camillo jimenez/Unsplash
Technology & Innovation
  • 10-15% of people visiting emergency rooms eventually develop symptoms of long-lasting PTSD.
  • Early treatment is available but there's been no way to tell who needs it.
  • Using clinical data already being collected, machine learning can identify who's at risk.

The psychological scars a traumatic experience can leave behind may have a more profound effect on a person than the original traumatic experience. Long after an acute emergency is resolved, victims of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) continue to suffer its consequences.

In the U.S. some 30 million patients are annually treated in emergency departments (EDs) for a range of traumatic injuries. Add to that urgent admissions to the ED with the onset of COVID-19 symptoms. Health experts predict that some 10 percent to 15 percent of these people will develop long-lasting PTSD within a year of the initial incident. While there are interventions that can help individuals avoid PTSD, there's been no reliable way to identify those most likely to need it.

That may now have changed. A multi-disciplinary team of researchers has developed a method for predicting who is most likely to develop PTSD after a traumatic emergency-room experience. Their study is published in the journal Nature Medicine.

70 data points and machine learning

nurse wrapping patient's arm

Image source: Creators Collective/Unsplash

Study lead author Katharina Schultebraucks of Columbia University's Department Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons says:

"For many trauma patients, the ED visit is often their sole contact with the health care system. The time immediately after a traumatic injury is a critical window for identifying people at risk for PTSD and arranging appropriate follow-up treatment. The earlier we can treat those at risk, the better the likely outcomes."

The new PTSD test uses machine learning and 70 clinical data points plus a clinical stress-level assessment to develop a PTSD score for an individual that identifies their risk of acquiring the condition.

Among the 70 data points are stress hormone levels, inflammatory signals, high blood pressure, and an anxiety-level assessment. Says Schultebraucks, "We selected measures that are routinely collected in the ED and logged in the electronic medical record, plus answers to a few short questions about the psychological stress response. The idea was to create a tool that would be universally available and would add little burden to ED personnel."

Researchers used data from adult trauma survivors in Atlanta, Georgia (377 individuals) and New York City (221 individuals) to test their system.

Of this cohort, 90 percent of those predicted to be at high risk developed long-lasting PTSD symptoms within a year of the initial traumatic event — just 5 percent of people who never developed PTSD symptoms had been erroneously identified as being at risk.

On the other side of the coin, 29 percent of individuals were 'false negatives," tagged by the algorithm as not being at risk of PTSD, but then developing symptoms.

Going forward

person leaning their head on another's shoulder

Image source: Külli Kittus/Unsplash

Schultebraucks looks forward to more testing as the researchers continue to refine their algorithm and to instill confidence in the approach among ED clinicians: "Because previous models for predicting PTSD risk have not been validated in independent samples like our model, they haven't been adopted in clinical practice." She expects that, "Testing and validation of our model in larger samples will be necessary for the algorithm to be ready-to-use in the general population."

"Currently only 7% of level-1 trauma centers routinely screen for PTSD," notes Schultebraucks. "We hope that the algorithm will provide ED clinicians with a rapid, automatic readout that they could use for discharge planning and the prevention of PTSD." She envisions the algorithm being implemented in the future as a feature of electronic medical records.

The researchers also plan to test their algorithm at predicting PTSD in people whose traumatic experiences come in the form of health events such as heart attacks and strokes, as opposed to visits to the emergency department.