In January, 2015 Senator McCain and Senator Blumenthal reintroduced the Clay Hunt veterans suicide act and it passed immediately. Although the act will cost $22 million in federal funding, that amount, according to the Washington Post, is less than the cost of a new fighter jet. The new law calls for more accessible and longer term mental health care through the Veterans Affairs (VA), as well as for an evaluation of all VA mental health care and suicide prevention practices, to determine what is working and what is not working.
A high suicide rate
More veterans die from suicide (22/day, 8000/year) than die during the wars we have recently fought. This is three times the rate of suicide in active duty men. Although the rate has been reduced somewhat among older veterans, younger veterans and female veterans rates have risen.
According to the Annals of Epidemiology the suicide rate in veterans is approximately 50% higher than the rate among the general public. Why? At this point the military states they are not sure. Probably there are several reasons.
First of all, veterans hate to ask for help and when they finally do, they don’t receive the help they need when they need it. They are placed on a wait list and often wait to see someone for six months and up to a year. As a psychotherapist who in private practice has worked with many people, including veterans, who have Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) or severe depression, I know people with these issues should not be placed on a waiting list. Under those circumstances, it should surprise no one that the suicide rate is as high in veterans as it is.
The VA refused to hire the help needed.
Why are the waiting lists so long at this time? Yes, money is one reason, but why has the VA not made it a priority to hire more counselors who can help? The National Board for Certified Counselors (NBCC) advocated for recognition and employment of professional counselors by the US Department of Veterans Affairs for years. Their efforts succeeded in the passage of a law in 2006, adding licensed professional mental health counselors (LPMHC) to the list of professions eligible for VA employment. The law was passed by both houses in congress. Little happened until December 2010 during which the VA had to come up with their qualification standards allowing for the hiring to begin. No one was hired. Finally in 2012 the VA created a hiring initiative to add 1,600 mental health professionals to their workforce, but as of now only a handful have been hired. So why is there no national outrage at the lack of services our veterans receive?
PTSD is an illness, it doesn’t mean “crazy”
Not only are there long waiting lists but there is still a strong stigma attached to all mental health issues. Many veterans are concerned they will be considered weak or won’t receive a promotion if they seek help. Nine times out of ten it is family and friends who convince veterans to seek aid. According to the VA’s latest statistics, only five out of the 22 veteran’s who commit suicide daily have been seen by the VA. They believe that therapy is working but many veterans will not come in for help.
In my book available through Amazon, How to Cope with Stress after Trauma: Especially for Veterans, their Families and Friends, I write, “Let me debunk an old myth that has been believed for far too many years: People who experience a lot of stress following a trauma are weak. This is not true. The brain is an organ, like any other organ in the body. When it malfunctions, certain symptoms arise. We don’t consider people weak because they have had heart attacks, or because their lungs or kidneys have failed. Neither should we think of people as weak because their brains are not functioning normally.” PTSD and depression are like any other illnesses. Often due to stress, certain chemicals are altered in the body and cause the brain to malfunction. From my experience, most people who commit suicide do not really want to die. They desperately need the mental and physical suffering to end. And when they can see no alternative to stopping the pain, they opt to end their lives.
What can we do to help?
So what is the solution? Senator Mc Cain said when the Clay Hunt act passed, “Our nation has much work still to do to fulfill its responsibilities for our veterans…” Yes, we can become more informed and push government to enact laws and enforce them, but we cannot rely only on the government. I believe that we, the people are ultimately responsible for the men and women we have sent to fight for us. We hold the answers. Each one of us needs to ask him or herself, “What can I do to reduce the suicide rate among veterans?”
From what the data shows, most veteran suicides occur within the first years after they return. I believe that reintegration into society and the work force is one of the main issues veterans face and many need our help.
Here are a few suggestions:
- Some of us support our veterans with our money and a kind word. That’s great and very much appreciated. But more importantly, I suggest you get to actually know a veteran and take time to incorporate him or her into your life, your family, and your community. Make it a church or community service project. Develop peer to peer groups and help them build a network. Veterans need connection and hope. Become a veteran’s mentor who makes sure that his or her physical and emotional needs are met. Include them in important community projects. Include the veteran’s family as well if possible.
- Get rid of the stigma of PTSD. Stress after trauma is normal and people need help not isolation and judgment. Very few veterans are actually violent.
- Veterans have learned skills most of us do not have. They have learned to work together, organize, act in an emergency, protect and care about each other, and carry out assignments like no other people in our country can. Many veterans when they return feel they have no purpose. They feel lost and hopeless. At present we have many problems, natural disasters and emergency issues arising that veterans could deal with more effectively than anyone else. Let’s find ways to incorporate our veterans on a day to day basis such as firemen, policemen, and rescue. We need them to make our nation strong at home.
If you wish more information read my book How to Cope with Stress after Trauma: Especially for Veterans, their Families and Friends available on Amazon as a paper copy or as a Kindle e-book.