PTSD: Two new programs; two big ignored questions

After a rather intense two months of long-form work, I’m so far behind on blogging I don’t know where to start. Forget the last two months and move on? Probably the best move. But beforehand, I want to note a few developments along major lines of interest. I’ll start with PTSD.

Amid the stagnation on combat PTSD, the summer brought news of new programs from the UK and US militaries aimed to answer the call for more effective treatment for rising rates reported in vets of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Mind Hacks was one of several blogs to report and comment on a new Royal Marine program called TRiM, or Trauma Risk Management. The Times and other outlets covered a program being launched this October by the US Dept of Defense.

I’m not sure how much I have to add to these, other than noting (as others have) that neither of these programs is peer-reviewed (though they’re based roughly on peer-reviewed methods), and neither should be seen as anything approaching a full solution. I’m glad to see these programs and expect they’ll help some soldiers. But not many, I fear, at least in the US, for the program proposed has no real hope of overcoming the other problem with our response to war-related distress here.

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Now that’s new media: Obama and his 11-year-old interviewer

Well here you go. An 11-year-old interviews Obama — and if I may say so, does quite a bit better than some of his journalistic elders.
Here’s the vid, and some apt commentary from Tapped:

Hey, remember Damon Weaver, the 11-year-old who interviewed Joe Biden back in September? Well, he finally scored a sit-down session with Barack Obama yesterday.
Among the topics discussed: ways to improve school systems affected by budget cuts, Obama’s attitude toward his critics, mangoes, basketball. Things not mentioned: the communist end of days, enchantment, swim trunks, death panels.
–Alexandra Gutierrez

Helps to have a good interview subject.
Hang in for the question at 5:55: He asks Obama what he does about “getting bullied a lot.” Obama: “I wasn’t bullied too much in school.”
“Can you dunk?”
“Not anymore.”

Death panels, swine flu due, clever crows, big trains, juvie disaster

Massive feature finished, should be in print this November … but more on that later. By way of returning to blogdom, a few of the few notables I’ve had time to read lately:
Effect Measure, usually quite restrained about predictions, joins quite a few others in predicting the swine flu will hit us pretty hard this fall. (The U.S. has already had 6,506 hospitalized cases and 436 deaths, despite it not being flu season. And while we’ve been tracking health-care debacles debates and pondering Palin, the flu has been hitting the southern hemisphere pretty hard.) Now, not later, when you’re sick, might be a good time to get that hand sanitizer and a few surgical masks, and know who you’re gonna call if you live alone.
Mike Madden, in Salon, wishes to remind Sarah Palin that the death panels are already here.
Replicated study dept; Crows, replicating the behavior of one of their ancestors in Aesops fables, figured out how to “raise the water level in a lab container by dropping stones in it to retrieve a tasty worm floating on the surface.”
Kottke reminds us how much value public transportation provides. “You’d need the equivalent of a 228-lane Brooklyn Bridge” to replace the NYC subway lines into Manhattan on Monday morning rush hour.
The Times reports on, and WSJ Health Blog and Philip Dawdy ponder, the thousands of youths diagnosed with mental health disorders and incarcerated in America’s juvenile justice system. Something — several things — badly broken here.
All for now.

Veterans’ suicides, PTSD, and old thinking: Or why we need a “surge” at the VA

I just finished reading Erica Goode’s Times story on the suicides of four soldiers who served together in a small North Carolina-based Guard unit in Iraq from 2006 to spring 2007. This is a witheringly painful story. Goode, who has done quite a bit of science writing as well as substantial reporting from Baghdad, tells it with an unusual freshness of perspective and clarity of vision.
She starts where I suppose she must:

On Dec. 9, 2007, Sergeant Blaylock, heavily intoxicated, lifted a 9-millimeter handgun to his head during an argument with his girlfriend and pulled the trigger. He was 26.
“I have failed myself,” he wrote in a note found later in his car. “I have let those around me down.”
Over the next year, three more soldiers from the 1451st — Sgt. Jeffrey Wilson, Sgt. Roger Parker and Specialist Skip Brinkley — would take their own lives. The four suicides, in a unit of roughly 175 soldiers, make the company an extreme example of what experts see as an alarming trend in the years since the invasion of Iraq.

But this isn’t another routine PTSD story. Though an IED explosion that killed two comrades near the end of the unit’s deployment plays a large role, Goode doesn’t bolt the men’s distress down to standard-narrative reactions to this traumatic event. By acknowledging early and outright the complex multiple problems that faced these men both in Iraq and back at home, she adds dimension to their lives — and gives a cleaner look at the forces that drove them to end them.

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A brief trip to the surface

Pardon the long silence. A couple of posts fell to tech issues. And I’d love to blame the hiatus on a vacation.
But mostly I’ve been off-blog and, for social media purposes, offline, because I’ve been immersed in writing a long feature. It’s a fun, meaty, juicy, really substantial story, one of two great assignments I’ve been working on this summer. And I’m greatly enjoying it, especially when it goes well. But as I’ve found before, the longer (and deeper) the feature, the more exclusively I seem to need to give it my attention. Thus the lack of blogging, and of tweets.
I don’t seem to mix short-burst with deep immersion very easily. I puzzle over why that is so. Partly it’s because I sometimes have difficulty diving into the pool, as it were, that I resist any distractions that might keep me from doing so, for I know how alluring I’ll find them. How pleasant and educational the web seems when you have 7,000 words waiting for you; how clever and fun the tweets; how intriguing the blog post you want to follow up on. And before you know it, a morning is gone.
I think sometimes the attraction of distraction is that when you (or I, anyway) enter the process of writing a long piece — the writing part, the really getting serious part — the very immersion that makes it so rewarding and entrancing — the need for total absorption, so all one’s concentration and working memory and side-thoughts and mind-wanderings are full of it — is also something you resist, for you know that there you will disappear. It’s as if you recognize you’re going to leave the rest of your life for a bit — and you resist doing so. Yet nothing feels better once you dive in.
So, well — that’s where I’ve been.
I’ll have read a few non-feature bits now and then, however — AI in war robots; an interesting couple of posts about PTSD at Tom Ricks’ blog — one by a soldier, one by Ricks about my SciAm piece on PTSD; health-care reform (or not); psych, pharma, other usual suspects — and will try to get a few posts up on those as I go along.
You can also follow (some of) what I’ve found worth reading by following my Google Reader shared items.

PZ Myers, Chris Mooney, Asa Gray, and the religion-science divide

6. Asa Gray
Greg Laden, trying to toss a line between the “New Atheists” and ‘Accommodationists” who are currently squabbling about a dust-up featuring PZ Myers v Chris Mooney & Sheril Kirshenbaum (who apparently rough Myers up a bit in their book Unscientific America), writes:

Now, I just want to make this point: I learned early on (when I was still an altar boy) that where religion and life conflict — where the religion was not doing a good job at explaining the bits and pieces of life that were not making sense — it was OK to drop the details of the religion part and chalk it up to mystery.

I’ve never understood why so many people reject this approach. And I think a bit of historical background helps here. You could ask yourself, for instance, What Would Asa Gray Do?

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Cool dips: long distance running; memory and plagiarism; scenery; and swine flu action

Both Mind Hacks and Jonah Lehrer took interesting note — Jonah’s the longer, and a pretty nice summary itself — of the fascinating NY Times piece on ultramarathoner Diane Van Deren, who began running long distances after brain surgery removed much of her right temporal lobe. This gave her a great advantage: the lack of memory of the run behind her, and thus of any dread of the punishment still to come. Downside: significant memory problems, and she can’t read a map.
Speaking of memory …

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Crowd dynamics, music, and magic at Fenway

Effect Measure alerted me to this very touching video, which shows the crowd at Fenway coming to the rescue of a kid who starts to lose it while singing the national anthem. Revere’s set-up first, then some thoughts of my own:

I don’t know what’s going to happen with swine flu. I do know that if there is a nasty flu season we’ll all get through it better if we help each other, not run from each other. It’s national independence day in the US, so I thought this clip of the crowd singing the National Anthem (hat tip, Paul Rosenberg at Open Left) at Boston’s Fenway Park (home field of the Boston Red Sox baseball team) was appropriate. It was Disability Awareness Day and to recognize it the anthem was being sung by a handicapped youngster. When he got nervous, the entire ball park came to his rescue:

And indeed they do come to his rescue.

I don’t want to indulge in too much Fenway gush, even though it’s an incredible ballpark. I resisted the Red Sox Nation thing a long time after I moved to Vermont. I figured I was masochistic enough to deal with the weather here, but not masochistic enough to be a Red Sox fan. (I was also turned off by what seemed a racist ownership by the previous owners, and one ugly experience back in the ’80s when a Sox fan was abusive to Jim Rice and called him the N word. Then again, a HUGE white guy two rows in front of the harassing fan finally had enough, stood and turned toward the harassing fan, and said, viciously, “You leave Jimmy alone!” He did.) But this current team and ownership won me over.

Last year I had the good luck to attend a splendid game on Aug 29, when Dice-K shut down a hot White Sox team. The game was great. But the stunning treat came in the middle of the 8th, when, as happens every night at Fenway, Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline” was played over the PA system during the team changover. I knew about this and thought it cute: They’d been playing this for a few years when, a few years back now, the crowd started singing along with the chorus every night. “Sweet Caroline” became a sort of theme song.

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Watchdogs, sniff this: What investigative science journalism can investigate

Ed Yong, echoed by Mike the Mad biologist PhysioProf asks what the heck investigative science journalism would look like. I hope to write more extensively on this soon. In the meantime, a few observations:
To ponder this question — and to do investigative reporting — I think it helps to have a sense of the history of science, which embeds in a writer or observer a sense of critical distance and an eye for large forces at work beneath the surface. Machinations in government surprise no one who has studied the history of government and politics. Likewise with science.
Science — the search for empircal answers to important, testable questions — is an extremely worthy endeavor. But that endeavor is always in danger of being compromised by both the inevitable conflicting interests that every scientist has (which range from pride, allegiance to ideas, ambition, money on or under the table) and by broad cultural forces that frame both the questions asked and the reading of the evidence the asking generates. As in politics, these human and cultural forces often push even the most well-intentioned efforts off track — and the unprincipled into big trouble. Find an example, judiciously dig, lucidly write, and — if you’re lucky — publish, and you’ve got investigative science journalism.
To see what such looks like when applied, consider my own article and blog posts on the PTSD Wars, Philip Dawdy’s tireless watchdogging of the pharma industry; or, if you’ve a taste for longer work, Horace Freeland Judson’s “The Great Betrayal: Fraud in Science.” (Judson’s book is really history, but brings the peel-the-onion spirit of investigative journalism to bear, and draws on many good examples of investigative journalism as well.) Other examples an approaches out there; these just leap readily to mind.
I find it odd that these or other examples, particularly in coverage of pharma by the several bloggers and reporters who do that well, didn’t spring immediately to the minds of people pondering what investigative science journalism looked like. The discussions at Ed’s and other blogs on this tended to focus on how to do investigative reporting of discoveries or results. Discoveries are the tip. Sometimes the ice beneath is good. Sometimes it’s rotten — or the whole thing is just styrofoam, patched together or even elaborately faked to buttress up an unsupported argument.
That said, I don’t see why a given writer can’t be both watchdog and, if not “cheerleader,” then a judicious but enthusiastic explainer. Why shouldn’t good science be admired? No reason you can’t do that — while calling bullshit when you see things done otherwise.

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