LETTERS LOSING THE FOREST FOR THE TREES Huguet et al.1 examined the impact of netting out aggregated suicide counts among current military personnel on estimates of veteran suicide rates derived from National Violent Death Reporting System (NVDRS) data. They found that recent suicide rates among younger, but not older veterans were markedly higher than rates among age- and gender-matched nonveterans, even after crude adjustment for (aggregate counts of) current military decedents. The extent of the adjustment (and possibility of overadjustment) is unclear because the authors do not indicate whether they netted out only active duty military suicides that occurred in the United States, as should be the case since active duty suicides occurring outside the United States would not be picked up in NVDRS. These ﬁndings, like those by Gibbons et al.,2 are sobering and of interest. What is surprising, however, is that the article’s title, abstract, and Discussion section entirely ignore the empirical ﬁnding of strong effect modiﬁcation by age, in favor of asserting that (1) policymakers should be “reassured” that suicide estimates “derived from the NVDRS are reliable,”
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and “minimally affected by the adjustment,” and (2) NVDRS constitutes “a valid surveillance system for veteran suicide.” These assertions are, respectively, contradicted by the data presented (e.g., suicide rates among young veterans fell by more than 50% after netting out decedents presumed to be current military) and more sweeping than the current study warrants absent a comparison at the individual level with a gold standard for veteran status (i.e., regarding whether a given suicide was, at the time of death, current or former military). More importantly for suicide prevention efforts, the approach by Huguet et al. nets out an aggregate number of decedents, rather than particular suicides, because the authors are unable to determine which decedents ever served and which were currently serving when they died. This failure renders NVDRS a mere aggregator of death certiﬁcate data. What is lost is precisely what makes NVDRS so useful: information about the circumstances pertinent to different categories of suicides. To seriously attend to the current high burden of suicide apparent among soldiers and young veterans it is important to not only measure the extent of burden accurately, but also to understand whether, and if so, how this burden is explained by cohort effects affecting soldiers and younger veterans, factors related to selection into the armed forces, experiences during service, access to lethal means, and—in the case of veterans—circumstances related to recent discharge from service. A linked data set that matched all known US service members, data related to their selection into and separation from military service, and the National Death Index (NDI) would free researchers and policy makers from the assumption-laden best guesses of researchers, who like Huguet et al., try to make the best of a limited data set. The standard for studies of this kind remains those by Kang and Bullman,3---5 who linked Department of Defense records to the NDI, allowing them to unequivocally identify current and former military and describe the circumstances pertinent to both. If and when such linked data
May 2014, Vol 104, No. 5 | American Journal of Public Health
become readily available to researchers—a technically trivial but perhaps politically nontrivial if and when—better policy and clinical care will follow. j Matthew Miller, MD, ScD Deborah Azrael, PhD Catherine Barber, MPA Robert Bossarte, PhD
About the Authors Matthew Miller, Deborah Azrael, and Catherine Barber are with the Harvard Injury Control Research Center, Boston, MA. Matthew Miller is also with the Department of Health Policy and Management, Harvard School of Public Health, Boston. Robert Bossarte is with the Center of Excellence for Suicide Prevention, Veterans Affairs Medical Center, Canandaigua, NY. Correspondence should be sent to Matthew Miller, MD, ScD, Co-Director, Harvard Injury Control Research Center, Associate Professor of Health Policy and Management, Department of Health Policy and Management, Harvard School of Public Health, 677 Huntigton Ave, Boston, MA 02115 (e-mail: [email protected]). Reprints can be ordered at http://www.ajph.org by clicking on the “Reprints” link. This letter was accepted December 10, 2013. doi:10.2105/AJPH.2013.301843
References 1. Huguet N, Kaplan M, McFarland B. The effects of misclassiﬁcation biases on veteran suicide rate estimates. Am J Public Health. 2014;104(1):151---155. 2. Gibbons RD, Brown CH, Hur K. Is the rate of suicide among veterans elevated? Am J Public Health. 2012;102 (suppl 1):S17---S19. 3. Kang HK, Bullman TA. Risk of suicide among US veterans after returning from the Iraq or Afghanistan war zones. JAMA. 2008;300(6):652---653. 4. Kang HK, Bullman TA. Mortality among US veterans of the Persian Gulf War. N Engl J Med. 1996;335: 1498---1504. 5. Kang HK, Bullman TA. Mortality among US veterans of the Gulf War: seven year follow-up. Am J Epidemiol. 2001;154:399---405.
HUGUET ET AL. RESPOND We thank Miller et al. for their comments. Unfortunately, Miller et al. seem to have missed the essence of our study, which examined the potential effect that misclassiﬁcation of current military personnel (active duty, National
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Losing the forest for the trees.
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