By DR. MARSHA SARGEANT
Special to the PRESS
The rate of suicide among veterans is higher than that in the general population.
The VA’s 2012 Suicide Data Report indicated that in 2012, 38,000 of some of the most morally resolute and brave women and men perceived suicide as a solution to the pain they felt. Individuals do not “commit” suicide. Untreated mental health problems are the culprit — the main cause of suicide.
Based on the 2012 report indicating that 16 of the estimated 22 Veterans who died by suicide were not VA-enrolled. While Veterans Administration services are the focus of much criticism in the public eye, the solution does not appear to lie solely in focusing on the VA’s shortcomings. We must divert energy toward other solutions. From the 2012 findings, it can be estimated that 72 percent of Veterans who die by suicide are either seeking care in OUR community or not at all.
This is a call to action to OUR community. We need to shift the paradigm of how we address mental health problems in veterans. The community is obligated to address suicide in veterans.
The first step is to adjust our attitudes about mental illness and suicide so that those who need help feel no shame or fear in doing so. We must place adequate focus on how Veterans are not receiving adequate services and are thus at the highest risk for suicide. The community must call those with invisible wounds out of the shadows and into the arms of high-quality, accessible medical and mental health care.
We need clinicians who are culturally competent in veteran-centered care. Medical and mental health training programs in the Rio Grande Valley, which is home to one of the highest density of veterans in the country, should be tasked with developing curriculum and clinical training to address veteran mental health.
Learn about mental illness. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is one of many mental health problems associated with suicide when left untreated; it is focused upon here for the sake of demystifying this very stigmatized and misunderstood diagnosis.
Prevailing stereotypes and miseducation paints the picture of a male combat veteran who returns home “damaged.” While many veterans with mental health diagnoses thrive after service, combat exposure is but one of many factors that confer increased risk suicide. Bootcamp, stateside service, enlisted, drafted, medically boarded, honorably or dishonorably discharged service members also experience trauma that can lead to untreated mental illness. In fact, a large proportion of those who received a less than honorable discharge were often discharged in relation to traumatic experiences or mental illness — not because of flawed character or lack of dedication to their missions.
A civilian’s hypothesis regarding of the development of mental illness during transition to civilian life:
There is an understandable reason for the difficulty of transitioning to civilian life. To drastically simplify this phenomenon in “civilian-speak” — there is a drastically, and necessarily, different rule book in military than in civilian life. The military rule book serves to mobilize minds and bodies for war/conflict.
Many symptoms that lead to PTSD are, in fact, adaptive behaviors in the context of life-threatening situations, such as war or abusive situations. For some, upon return to civilian life, the once highly-reinforced behaviors that make our military so powerful become pathologized without validating the important function of these behaviors during service. Let’s not forget the high incidences of sexual assault that affect both men and women in the military and how many are encouraged to not report it for fear of decreasing morale or of losing one’s career. Returning to the civilian version of life, the feelings of futility regarding non life-or-death situations is perplexing to loved ones, leaving the Veteran feeling isolated and hopeless – even in light of having sacrificed so much.
Stigmatizing discourse about mental illness and suicide prevent those who need assistance from coming out from behind the shadows: Men and women who experienced military sexual trauma, discrimination and retaliation, those who came from Mexico to serve this country, Gulf War Veterans, individuals who identify as LBGTQI, or those who served in secret missions for which there is no documentation of their sacrifices. There are others. Help them come out from behind the shadows.
Hopelessness and feelings of separation is fertile ground for suicide. Shift the paradigm at the levels of local community, education and government. In our neighborhoods. In our homes.
Validate the harrowing traversing of realities involved in military service. So do what you can to destigmatize and validate and listen with the intent of understanding rather than judging; know that you have not seen what they have seen. Know that to show empathy and compassion is to transform suffering for that individual. Understand that those who suffer and see suicide as a solution have seen or experienced things that shake their core foundations of trust in humanity, safety, justice and sense of purpose necessary to proceed in this thing we call life.
This call to action is a matter of life or death. This is not an issue of patriotism, but one of basic humanity.
Editor’s Note: Dr. Marsha Sargeant is a licensed clinical psychologist and researcher offering services in the Laguna Madre region. She has worked extensively with veterans at VA medical centers, and now in private practice. Her offices, Madre Bay Consulting & Psychological Services, and her non-profit organization, Veteran Wellness Initiative, are located in Port Isabel.
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