The Lookout
  • Report: Mental health of U.S. soldiers in a freefall

    New York Magazine reporter Jennifer Senior has a wrenching report on the growing mental-health crisis among American soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.

    With military suicide rates rising to unprecedented heights—to the point where more soldiers are now dying by their own hand than in combat—Senior finds that many soldiers end up combating their own mental afflictions in isolation. Often, she notes, they end up falling out of social networks of support, dependent on a bevy of prescription anti-depressants and sleep aides to make it through each day.

    A spokesman at Fort Drum, home to the 10th Mountain Division here in New York State, tells me by e-mail that one-quarter of its 20,000 soldiers have "received some type of behavioral health evaluation and/or treatment during the past year." Defense Department spending on Ambien, a popular sleep aid, and Seroquel, an antipsychotic, has doubled since 2007, according to the Army Times, while spending on Topamax, an anti-convulsant medication often used for migraines, quadrupled; amphetamine prescriptions have doubled, too, according to the Army's own data. Meanwhile, a study by the Rand Corporation has found that 20 percent of the soldiers who've deployed in this war report symptoms of post-traumatic stress and major depression. The number climbs to almost 30 percent if the soldiers have deployed more than twice.

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  • AP04060406750A comprehensive analysis of 33 studies finds that teaching kids social and emotional skills leads to an average 11 percentile-point gain in their academic performance over six months compared to students who didn't receive the same instruction.

    That's a big jump, equivalent to a student at the middle of a class's performance curve moving into the top 40 percent of his or her peers, Sarah Sparks at EdWeek notes. The study's authors, led by Joseph Durlak, suggest the dramatic gain could be rooted in the physiology of the brain; social-skill instruction "may affect central executive cognitive functions," he notes—and improvement there helps kids to gain greater control over their impulses and actions.

    The classes emphasize self control, responsible decision-making, and how to form and keep positive relationships with friends and authority figures. One lesson plan from the "Caring School Community" program asks kids to think about "some things you can do if you're not included in a game"—or if you see someone else on the playground who is left out. Many of the programs have an anti-bullying focus.

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  • A natural gas well grows in a national forest

    gas drilling in forestWhat happens when an industry increasingly prone to safety mishaps and public controversy gets drilling rights in a national forest?

    The nonprofit investigative group Pro Publica gives a bracing answer, by digging into a U.S. Forest Service report on a natural gas drilling project in West Virginia's 4,700-acre Fernow Experimental Forest. In summarizing the Forest Service's findings, Pro Publica points up an impressive litany of environmental damage: The drilling killed off roughly 1,000 trees, while the natural-gas industry's controversial slate-fracturing gas-discovery process known as "fracking" released toxic chemicals into the ground and onto the surrounding land that could well render the immediate area virtually uninhabitable for native wildlife.

    Reports Pro Publica:

    According to the report, a well blowout . . . accidentally sprayed that fracking fluid onto surrounding land and trees, browning leaves and killing ground cover. After drilling was complete, Berry Energy, which owns the well, also sprayed some 80,000 gallons of wastewater into the forest. The briney liquid shocked about 150 trees into shedding their leaves. A year later, half of those trees still had no foliage. This disposal method, called land application, is legal in West Virginia with conventional wells, Schuler said, but is not allowed for wells drilled in the Marcellus Shale.

    Schuler said the scientists were surprised that the trees lost their leaves. Drillers normally spray the waste over a larger area but the scientists asked Berry to contain the application, which meant spreading the salts and chemicals on a smaller piece of land. The soil in that area was left with high levels of chloride, calcium and sodium. Animals were attracted to the area, likely because of the high salt content of the soil.

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