Can We Stop Our Veterans from Killing Themselves?
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Can We Stop Our Veterans from Killing Themselves?


For most Americans, no July 4th celebration would be complete without a panoply of colorful explosions in the sky. But for some veterans, the crackle and boom of fireworks might trigger flashbacks of battlefield trauma. Research shows that traumatic experiences during combat have driven veterans to substance abuse and suicide in record numbers over the past decade.

Jarring Statistics for Vets

Today US military suicides are at an all-time high. In fact, 2012 marked the first year that more veterans died by suicide than in combat. The VA reports that 22 veterans end their lives each day. The vast majority of these suicides take place after vets return home to the states. Men under 30 have been hit the hardest, with a 44% jump between 2009 and 2011.

The tragedy hasn’t gone unnoticed. The Huffington Post has devoted a whole series to the struggle against military suicides, even enlisting Michelle Obama and Jill Biden to film a video encouraging vets to seek mental health care. And as the issue gains more traction in the treatment world, veterans have found impassioned advocates in those who work in treatment.

Essential Mental Health Resources Needed for Vets

“Since the first reports of the large numbers of suicide deaths among our returning war veterans were made, I have been saying publicly that it is our responsibility and moral obligation to provide war veterans the services they need to heal their wounds, whatever they may be,” said Richard Taite, founder and CEO of Cliffside Malibu, who co-authored Ending Addiction For Good. “There is good treatment available for PTSD, suicidality and addiction. Vets need access to quality care as soon as possible upon returning home and for as long as they need to reintegrate into society as active, functioning individuals.”

Addiction and PTSD often go hand in hand. Among military personnel, prescription drug abuse tripled between 2005 and 2008. Meanwhile, drugs and alcohol played a role in 30% of successful suicides between 2003 and 2009 and over 45% of failed suicide attempts between 2003 and 2009. While PTSD has been repeatedly linked to substance abuse, the latest theories suggest it’s not the former that’s causing the latter; rather, both conditions are the direct result of trauma suffered in the field.

Veteran Trauma Can Be Two Fold

It’s no shocker that trauma is a major root of addiction. Just as the rooms of recovery are brimming with tales of abuse and neglect, combat veterans have their own horror stories. And yet they often lack a forum to share and process these experiences.

Humans have been writing about the horrors of war ever since we’ve been writing at all. Invisible Injury, an illustrated story by Jeff Severns Guntzel and Andy Warner of the Public Insight Network, gives a graphic (in both senses of the word) account of soldiers’ experiences of “moral injury.” The term was coined by psychologist Jonathan Shay, whose work with Vietnam vets suggested that when people are forced to betray their own moral codes, they suffer a type of trauma “beyond PTSD.” It’s one thing when something unspeakable happens to you, but what if it happens because of you? This is the extra layer of trauma some veterans combat for the rest of their lives. Such a burden can lead to demoralization and self-harm, including substance abuse and suicide. One of Shay’s patients was a former Marine corporal who received orders to murder a group of unarmed prisoners. Ultimately he obeyed and even egged his reluctant men on. Haunted by the incident, he spent years on the street as a homeless alcoholic before eventually getting help.

Help Does Work When Sought

The statistics do reveal a glimmer of hope: those vets who sought treatment from the VA health system exhibited significantly lower suicide rates—five per day instead of 22. So getting help makes a difference. Jan Kemp, the VA’s National Mental Health Director For Suicide Prevention, suggests that young vets aren’t seeking help in large enough numbers because of the stigma of mental illness. Yet with last May’s revelation that the VA was falsifying records about the ghastly lengths of time people waited for treatment, it’s not hard to see why so many are falling through the cracks and giving up hope.

“One of the most effective forms of treatment is group and family therapy,” says addiction and family therapist Dr. Paul Hokemeyer. “These men and women need to know they are not alone in their struggles—and in their strength. To do this we need to be funding support groups that are focused on building on the incredible strength, courage and resilience of our veterans. Currently, the clinical interventions that are offered them are focused on pathology and weakness. Its like offering a dehydrated marathon runner a bacon double cheese burger at the end of their victory- ineffective, insulting and destructive.”

Honoring Their Service

The Veterans Crisis Hotline is available 24/7. But the burden shouldn’t fall on veterans to seek help. As Taite says, as a society, “It is our responsibility to work toward understanding the difficult experiences that dot our veterans’ paths to recovery.” After all, we’ve sent these brave volunteers to defend our right to pursue happiness. It’s time we uphold our part of the bargain and enable them to do the same.

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About Author

Erica Larsen AKA Eren Harris blogs at Whitney Calls and Clean Bright Day. Their writing has also been published on Salon, Selfish, Violet Rising and YourTango. They live in Los Angeles with their husband and their enormous cat.