Tuesday, May 30, 2017

You are never as alert as you think you are

This surprised me. From Suicide Among Veterans and Other Americans 2001–2014. As alert as I try to remain about seeing problems holistically and not just from the angle advocates wish me to see them, it is still easy to be subverted by your own assumptions.

For the past few years, the media has been filled with numerous articles about the tragedy of veteran suicides, now occurring at 20 a day. The evidence in the articles is based on how dramatically higher suicide rates among veterans are compared to the suicide rate in general population.

I am predisposed to believe that we do an inadequate job with mental health anyway, and I also am predisposed to believe that military service entails stresses of a type and degree which are probably contributive to elevated psychological stresses and therefore potentially suicide. Therefore, these articles were entirely consistent with my assumptions.

At the same time, as I point out dozens of times in this blog, you always have to compare apples-to-apples.

And I did not ever ask that of myself when processing an article about veteran suicide. But the report above points out:
After adjusting for differences in age and gender, risk for suicide was 21 percent higher among Veterans when compared with U.S. civilian adults.
The risk of suicide is elevated for veterans, but not nearly to the degree that I assumed. I failed to compare apples-to-apples. Suicide is overwhelmingly prevalent among males and therefore, since the military is overwhelmingly male, you would expect the rate among veterans to be higher.

Separate from the above epistemic issues, I have long been concerned about mental health and suicide as two areas in which we do poorly and should do better. The clarification from the report doesn't change that at all. But it is a cognitive surprise when something you casually assumed you understood reasonably well turns out to be different than you understood. It is even more humbling when it is for reasons against which you thought you were well protected.

The price of liberty may be eternal vigilance but so is the price of truth. It is easy to let your guard down and simply see what you expect to see.

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