Updated: Nov 10, 2021
Can we please take a second to talk about how Veteran’s Day and Memorial Day are NOT synonymous? Memorial Day deserves it’s very own blog post about how it is often disrespected by our “traditions”, but today this blog post is about Veteran’s day, which is to honor the living soldiers who have served our country for our freedom.
Let me start off by saying; I don’t understand what veterans have gone through. I have listened and been there for many, but that is not in any way shape or form a substitute for experiencing those things that are still sometimes beyond my imagination. That being said, this can’t be something people stay afraid to talk about. I can't lie to you, I'm scared shitless right now. I'm afraid a soldier will come through and tell me I'm a piece of shit and I hit way off the mark. As I am out in the blogging world and researching, I'm seeing no one talking about Veterans and Mental Health. It's breaking my heart. So, I decided to put my anxiety to the side, put my vulnerability out there and hope this post is well received.
We need to bring awareness to the fact that Veterans overall are 1.5x as likely to commit suicide than the general population. Female Veterans are 2.5x more likely to commit suicide than their female civilian counterparts. It’s estimated that HALF of returning soldiers are diagnosed with a mental health condition returning from Afghanistan or Iraq.
Do you know any soldiers who have been overseas? Maybe two? One of them needs your help.
Do I have your attention? Good.
When I think of America, and what it means to be American, I think about patriotism. I see red white and blue waving lazily in the wind. I see amber waves of grain. I think of how those waves of grain create opportunity and allow capitalism which on it’s long road leads me to have the opportunity to write you this blog today. I think about how I can say anything I want here, because I have freedom of speech. I think about how as a woman, I can own my own company, and move my life forward without any man in sight. How I can protect my family the best way I see fit, and I can decide the future of our country by voting.
I have to admit, as I’ve gotten older, other things have muddied that picture, like exclusion in all forms. I understand our country has problems (oh so many), but regardless of what gender, race, sexual orientation, or social status, you are privileged to be here. Some of us are more privileged than others, but we all live in America.
People might scoff at “Land of the Free” and talk about all of our laws, restrictions, and taxes, but I can wear my hair out if I want to, and I can speak up on my own accord as a female. People may have started doubting our “Great” status, if I wasn’t born here, I would be envious of the opportunity and privilege I do have.
This was all brought to you by our soldiers. I have done a lot of research in preparation for this post, because I wanted to make sure I honored Veterans and the shit they go through. If I could achieve any dream while writing this, it would be that a soldier (even just one) felt relief after reading it. Even if it’s just relief that civilians care.
What better way to honor them, than to show the connections between Veterans and Mental Health and hopefully break down that stigma? Obviously we all know most Vets have seen some shit. It’s assumed, and unspokenly forbidden for a civilian to talk about, unless the Vet brings it up first. I respect that, and will continue to respect that within this post. I have developed lifelong friendships with a couple vets, and understanding their story, I know the lines and limits. At ease soldier, I’m not one of those people who talks about things they don’t know about.
Here is my trigger warning. I won’t talk about things I’ve been confided in about, I’m not here to gossip. I won’t talk about understanding what they’ve gone through while serving. What I am here to talk about, is the danger of suicide among Veterans, and what you can do to make a difference.
Straight up, it’s estimated that half of returning Iraq and Afghanistan veterans have a mental health diagnosis. Let’s be honest here though, you know the other half is misrepresented because they’re the ones that don’t get assessed. I mean, they don’t exactly make it easy or even a safe career path to seek mental health guidance in the military. Do you know any soldiers that have been deployed overseas? Imagine coming home from the unfathomable and then being told you can’t talk about it, not with your family, or even a Licensed Mental Health Counselor (would they even get it anyways?). In fact, if you do, you might lose your job, or at least your rank. Which is also how your worth is determined. We have to stick to numbers though, not that they aren’t frightening enough without thinking about all the people who suffer silently. HALF of our returning soldiers are estimated to be coming home with a mental health condition.
Fun fact: (you vets probably already know this one) Veterans are actually the reason we have the official diagnosis of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Formerly known as “Shell Shock” and was thought to have been caused by shells exploding near you. It affected the front lines the most. Except it didn’t only affect them. The people asked to stifle their emotions regarding combat, were also affected. Captains were 4 times more likely to have some sort of “combat stress” than regular soldiers.
Here’s the thing though, there’s two types of Shell Shock. The physical kind, where you actually did take physical damage from being in the midst of war, and the mental kind, where you shook, you got headaches, or heard intense ringing in your ears (think horror story, ghost is hacking your brain ringing), you would get dizzy and fall down when you stood up, you couldn’t concentrate on anything, your mind kept wandering, mostly back there, you can’t seem to remember the “important” things, and you can’t sleep for shit, but your body is fine. So basically if the government property was damaged (your body) you earned a wound stripe, and if your body took no physical damage, regardless what was going on in your mind in reaction to the unimaginable horrors of war, you were not awarded a stripe, and were returned to your station. You were called a pussy and told to strap up your boots and get back to your job. Sound familiar? Unfortunately, not much has changed in today’s military atmosphere.
If you can’t see there’s a gap there, you might as well try to hike across the Grand Canyon.
Since then, the military has increased services around health, and suicide awareness, and it has helped. I don’t want to discredit that work, because the people behind those big moves had to do a lot of work to even make that possible, and they deserve the accolades that comes with it. Unfortunately, it’s still not enough. Though the military has increased efforts, the suicide rate has still also risen. Not to mention, the military still doesn’t feel like a safe place to get mental health help. Your job is literally on the line to admit the shit you saw fucked you up a little and you need to process it with someone who understands. *Big sigh.
So what does that mean for our soldiers? The ones who provide us with the comforts of freedom. They feel alone. I mean, think about it. It’s hard to sit hard in those boots. They’re heavy aren’t they? Sit here with me for a moment. You are on the plane home. Not a fancy airliner like you’re used to, but a no-frills military aircraft not built for comfort, but for functionality. If any fallen need to come home, they would share the space with you. Can you imagine that? Sit in that for a moment? The people you call brothers, family, the ones you know will have your back when you need it the most gone forever, but still right in front of you. How painful!
Jokes here, because you aren’t even on your way home, you’re headed to the next country you have to wait in, sometimes for weeks before actually going home. When you get there though, everyone looks at you differently. They love you, you know it intellectually, but to actually feel it is hard right now. To feel anything is hard right now. Anything but anger anyways.
I mean, you just came home from the place where they get in your face and scream about how much of a pussy you are, home to your wife (spouse) who wants to be in your face, but to see you. To see you. How scary! *Not allowed to admit anything is scary tho* Will she (they) still love what you’ve changed into? Because that shit changes you. *It actually changes the structure of your brain. It legit changes you.* You pulling away scares her and makes her push harder to get close to you. Anger is what works over there, and habits die hard.
She begs you to talk to her, to your friends, to anyone. (Insinuating talking to a shrink), but she just doesn’t get it. Not even a counselor will get what you’ve seen. Not a civilian one, at least. There are military therapists, some that have seen battle, and some that contract with the military to specifically help soldiers come home...but there’s that promotion on the line. If you show any sense of weakness, you damn well won’t get it, and your wife has already spent the raise keeping up with the jones of the other military wives. Not to mention...Rank… That's the best case scenario. Going to see the shrinks might actually lose you rank.
Half of the soldiers coming home from Afghanistan and Iraq are estimated to be coming home with a mental diagnosis. It might seem repetitive, but are you getting that? 1 out of 2!
When you think of soldiers, you think of PTSD. One more time. Slower this time. When you think of soldiers, you think of PTSD. At least most of us do. If that’s what you think of when you think of returning soldiers, shouldn’t that be a pretty good red flag that it’s a problem?
What do most people do when they don’t know how to deal (Who would)? They don’t get the help navigating what they experienced emotionally. What would you do? They numb. Anything to avoid. Usually alcohol, sometimes drugs, sometimes video games.
That doesn’t seem like a big deal, except Veterans coping with the dual diagnosis of substance abuse and PTSD are likely to have psychiatric and medical conditions, such as:
“Veterans who died by suicide were more likely to have sleep disorders, traumatic brain injury, or a pain diagnosis. In addition, mental health diagnoses (including bipolar disorder, personality disorder, substance use disorder, schizophrenia, depression, and anxiety disorders), and inpatient mental health care all contribute to the liklihood of suicide.” Breaking that all down, it means that if you’re a returning veteran from Iraq or Afghanistan, half of you are estimated to have PTSD. There’s a stereotype around veteran’s drinking heavily. Add drinking to PTSD, and you’re likely to also have resulting issues. Half of the people who deal with all of that? End up committing suicide.
It’s a known fact that isolation leads to depression and/or greater risk of suicide. We’ve talked about how the systems have failed our soldiers resulting in feelings of loneliness and like no one could possibly understand (I know I can’t ever begin to really understand). Among VHA patients, suicide rates have been found to be highest among those who were divorced, widowed, or never married and lowest among those who were married. Do you know a single Veteran? You don’t have to go marry them to make a difference in their life. Also, among VHA patients, suicide rates were elevated among individuals residing in rural areas. So, that single Vet that lives out in the woods with only his dog? Bring him (or her) some muffins.
So, what are the signs you should look for?
Of course you would want to pay attention to the classic warning signs of suicidal ideation.
Also pay attention to feelings of loneliness, isolation, hopelessness, and depression. Do any of these sound familiar, or does your soldier relate to any of the graphics below?
Sometimes it’s hard to know where to start. You can hear there is a problem, but you might be thinking;
“yeah but what do I do about it?”
Before we begin, please remember that when someone pulls away, it’s usually an emotional trigger response. Meaning they aren’t sure what to do, so they’re trying the safe option. It’s probably not personal, and even if it is something along the lines of “You just don’t understand, you never listen, you can’t get it.” That’s still not personal. You aren’t trained in this situation and all you can do is your very best. Just take those comments and use them like a thermometer for how your soldier is feeling themselves. If they’re saying those things, what you're trying might need some tweaks.
Make yourself available without chasing
Have you ever seen the movie (there’s a million, you don’t need a title), where the college student went off to college and the mom wouldn’t stop calling and pestering? She’s a constant mess and won’t leave them alone? Don’t be that guy. Let them know you’re around. Be creative and think outside the box. Send them something that's personal to them that screams “I’m thinking of you.”
Try a Special-to-Them gift
I recently made my partner a “feel good binder”. I asked people in her life to write letters to her about memories, things they loved about her, and ways they’ve impacted her. Her family and friends sent things that they never would have known she needed unless asked. She never would have asked. Can you imagine being suicidal after recieving a gift like that? Can you imagine being able to tell yourself everyone hates you and no one loves you if you have physical proof right in front of your face they do in fact care?
Ask them about feelings not experiences
Feelings are hard for anyone to talk about, let alone veterans, but if you don’t ask, who will? Don’t get discouraged if they don’t want to open up. Don’t be too upset if they push you away. Keep being there. Don’t pester, but don’t give up. They probably don’t trust that you can handle the feelings they have deep inside of them. Try to express that you can’t be truly prepared, but that you want to be there for them, even if it’s just to sit there with them and say nothing. Earn trust.
Do your research
Read books, listen to podcasts, find blogs, absorb yourself. Think about it, if you’re learning about the life of a soldier outside of you, you can talk about what you’ve learned, and now you have something in common. Not only do you have shit to talk about, but think back to highschool, did you ever have a boy teach you something (or be the boy/girl doing the teaching)? Remember how much it made them glow to be able to talk about something and have you be interested? If you start the learning process on your own, they will see you care, but will also likely jump in when there's incorrect information jumpstarting your closeness.
Get familiar with dark humor
One of the best ways to cope with something dark, is to joke about it. I feel my mortality regularly and being able to laugh about it, helps in ways that aren’t explainable (at least not in my scope). I was able to connect with a lot of my military friends over the fact that I could hang with dark humor that would make my Grandma slap me if she ever heard me laughing at. Think about it, if you act appalled at a super dark joke, do you think they will feel comfortable showing you the super dark parts of them that have kept them distant this long?
Are you here because you struggle connecting with the people around you? Check out this blog about connecting to people even when you don’t feel like it. Learn how to shine without faking it.
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U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. (2019). Suicide prevention.
U.S Department of Veteran Affairs (2018). VA National Suicide Data Report: 2015-2016.
U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs (2017). VA Releases Suicide Statistics by State.
Thomas, L. P. M., Palinkas, L. A., Meier, E. A., Iglewicz, A., Kirkland, T., & Zisook, S. (2014). Yearning to Be Heard. Crisis, 35(3), 161–167.
Bohnert, K. M., Ilgen, M. A., Louzon, S., Mccarthy, J. F., & Katz, I. R. (2017). Substance use disorders and the risk of suicide mortality among men and women in the US Veterans Health Administration. Addiction, 112(7), 1193–1201.
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (2008). Does alcohol and other substance abuse increase the risk of suicide?.
National Institute on Drug Abuse (2019). Substance Use and Military Life.
U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs (2019). VA launches new health care options under MISSION Act.
Veteran’s opinions, identities not disclosed.
Smithsonian Magazine (2010). Caroline Alexander; World War I: 100 Years Later
MEDLINE., PubMed (2018). Tatu L; Edgar Adrian (1889, 1977) and Shell Shock Electrotherapy: A Forgotten History?