In the best of times, journalists inspire change by shining light on social issues.

Despite the fact that more U.S. soldiers have died by suicide than in combat in the war in Afghanistan, I think this just might be the best of times.

The July 23 issue of Time magazine took on an issue I’ve been observing over the past few years. When I first wrote about the increasing rates of suicide in the Army, I was cautious—as a civilian, who was I to ask questions about military suicide prevention?

But, as time went on and suicide rates continued to increase (though rates have essentially increased across all branches of the military, it is the Army that has seen the most dramatic and persistent rise), I felt that it wasn’t okay for anyone to sit back and just watch, whether a civilian or someone with a more direct connection to the military.

So, when General Peter Chiarelli, former Army Vice Chief of Staff, took on suicide prevention, I was happy to write about it. And when Facebook worked with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and Blue Star Families to develop a special service for active-duty military, veterans, and their families, I felt that the issue had tipped entirely into the mainstream.

That’s why this week’s Time piece is so important. When a major mainstream media outlet devotes its cover story—eight pages of its 60-page magazine—to military suicide prevention, people pay attention. (I’m not a Time subscriber, but I heard about the article from a friend who has no direct connection to the issue of suicide prevention or to the military. It’s hard to miss a cover story.) People waiting in doctors offices—regular people, people with all kinds of backgrounds, who live in cities and towns all over the country—will read this story.

And, politicians will read this story. Many already have. It’s political will that makes a lot of change in U.S. society—and change has already happened because of this Time piece.

Mark Thompson, one of the authors of the Time article, blogged about how a blown-up version of the Time cover was used as a prop at a recent congressional hearing on defense spending:

“This is the most recent issue of Time magazine, reporting that military and veteran suicide is a tragic epidemic that has only gotten worse," Rep. Leonard Boswell, D-Iowa, said on the House floor... "We are losing too many of our heroes," said Boswell, a 20-year Army veteran. "It’s up to us to act."

Rep. Jim McDermott, D-Wash., was a co-sponsor of the amendment. "This week’s Time magazine, as you see from that front page, describes military suicides as an epidemic," McDermott said. "I would like to take $10 million out of a $5 billion fund in this amendment to go beyond the funding for existing suicide prevention services, and toward modifying the culture that keeps some from seeking help. We must also note that any progress in suicide prevention will be fleeting if we don’t focus on reducing the stigma associated with seeking psychological health services among our active-duty people.”

I’d encourage everyone to try to read the Time piece—borrow the issue from a friend or from your doctor’s office waiting room. Thompson and his co-author Nancy Gibbs really dig into the problem of suicide among our troops by telling the stories of two men, with very different experiences, meeting the same sad end.

The Time piece also does a lot right, serving as an example for other media coverage of suicide. The cover story is addressed by the editor in the Editor’s Desk column, which draws attention to the To Get Help box, strategically placed on the first page of the article. The authors don’t simplify suicide, searching for one cause or one explanation. They examine individual, family, social, and systemic risk factors and demonstrate just how complex suicide prevention can be. Balancing individual stories, which engage the reader, with statistics that tell the bigger story of suicide in this population, the article doesn’t sensationalize the issue, but informs us and gives each of us something to think about. Finally, they do what great journalists do—they show where the system failed.

Did you read this piece? What do you think?

Copyright 2012 Elana Premack Sandler, All Rights Reserved

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