Another Memorial Day has passed, when many Americans remembered and saluted those who lost their lives serving in the military and protecting America’s freedom. This holiday focuses on veterans who have passed on, but it also brings attention to those still living, and the issues that they have while adapting to civilian life.
Statistics say that 22 U.S. veterans die from the collective symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), usually via suicide, every day. While more emphasis has been given to mental health among veterans in the past few years, many retired servicemembers do not take advantage of the help that is offered.
One well-known example of what PTSD can do is the story of Chris Kyle, who became a household name after the movie American Sniper was released in 2014. While Kyle was ultimately murdered by a fellow vet that was suffering from PTSD, his wife of 11 years, Taya, has explained that Kyle had an extremely hard time falling back into civilian life after four Tours of Duty with the Navy, in which he served as a SEAL sniper. She shares her view of events and her husband’s difficulties in her book called American Wife: Love, Faith, and Renewal, which was published in 2016.
SOME STATS ABOUT VETERAN SUICIDE
According to the organization Stop Soldier Suicide, taking one’s own life is the second-leading cause of death in veterans who served after 9/11, which represents 23% of all vet deaths between 2002 – 2015. Depending on the military branch served in, up to 31% of vets develop PTSD. In 2015, vets that had not been under VA care represented more than 70% of veteran suicides. Approximately 30,000 veterans make up more than 9% of the adult homeless population in the U.S. on any given day. More than 40% of vets reported high levels of difficulty when transitioning to civilian life, which makes them five times (5x) more likely to experience thoughts of suicide.
WHY DON’T ALL VETS GET HELP TRANSITIONING?
While there are growing numbers of organizations that are focused on veterans and mental health, many returning military members do not take advantage of the help that is available. Unfortunately, mental health still carries stigmas, especially among veterans, and people in occupations that often employ veterans, such as police and firefighters. These occupations have a culture in which the person is supposed to be strong, resilient, and not show any “weakness.” Many people that are in these categories may go months or years needlessly experiencing the terrifying symptoms of PTSD before seeking help (if they ask for assistance at all).
The government-run Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has a history of being inadequate for returning service members. Fortunately, many VA clinics and hospitals have gone through major improvements since the 1990s. Veterans who have never given the organization a chance may be surprised at what they can accomplish with the VA as a partner in the quest for better lives.
In addition to the stigma discussed above, one complaint that has gotten attention recently is that if a vet does reach out, oftentimes they get paired with a therapist who may specialize in PTSD techniques, but, according to the client, can never completely relate to the veteran’s experiences. Instead of looking for a different therapist, sometimes the vet gives up and dubs therapy to be “useless,” and continues to suffer.
However, there are many veterans who have become counselors, organizations that have partnered with veterans to provide counseling and some that specialize in the transition from soldier to civilian. Seeking therapy or other services takes courage and needn’t be viewed as a weakness. The brain is part of the body, so getting a cast for a broken bone or getting help to manage diabetes are in the same realm as getting therapy and/or medication for a mental health issue.
WHAT ARE THE SYMPTOMS OF PTSD?
According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), anyone can have a trauma response to different situations. In fact, PTSD can even be experienced by someone who only observed a traumatic event instead of being involved in it. Symptoms can appear anytime, from directly after the trauma is experienced to years later. If these symptoms cause problems in a person’s daily life, they may be experiencing PTSD. Depression, substance abuse, and anxiety disorders commonly co-occur with PTSD.
Frequent indicators are:
- Re-experiencing trauma due to a trigger in everyday life, which may be thoughts, feelings, smells, words, objects, times of day, and anything else that reminds the person of the event
- Avoiding people, places, thoughts, feelings, and things that are reminders of the event
- Hypervigilance, which is characterized by constantly feeling like there are threats everywhere, and being on the lookout for them almost every day. For example: Being easily startled; feeling tense, anxious or on edge; sleep difficulties (oftentimes due to nightmares); sudden angry outbursts; and frightening thoughts
- Memory lapses regarding the details of the event
- A change in worldview, which usually includes negative thoughts about the world, themselves, and/or their family
- Feeling disproportionally guilty or shameful
- Unable to enjoy activities that were formerly pleasurable
- “Flashbacks,” in which the person re-experiences the trauma, sometimes in such detail that they think that they are back in the situation again. This may include physical symptoms like a racing heart, sweating, and hallucinations.
Some people are more naturally resistant to trauma symptoms because of their upbringing or genetics, but recovery can also be gained by establishing a social support network with friends, family, fellow vets, support groups, and therapy.
HOW CAN VETERANS GET IMMEDIATE HELP IN A CRISIS?
Vets who are either in crisis themselves (including suicidal thoughts), or know a fellow veteran in crisis can call the Veterans Crisis Line for help at 800-273-8255 [press 1], visit https://www.veteranscrisisline.net/get-help-now/chat/ to talk to someone online, or text 838255 (no message required). These resources are answered by other veterans, are 100% confidential, and are available 24/7/365.
Other sources for therapy and other services that are free or cheap include:
- Good Therapy: https://www.goodtherapy.org/learn-about-therapy/issues/veterans-mental-health-issues
- U.S. Vets: https://usvets.org/how-we-serve/mental-health-and-wellness/
- TexVet: https://texvet.org/resources/stay-course-veteran-services
- TalkSpace: https://www.talkspace.com/online-therapy/veterans
- Health and Human Services: https://www.hhs.texas.gov/services/mental-health-substance-use/adult-mental-health/mental-health-program-veterans
- VetsWhatsNext: https://www.vetswhatsnext.org/
The bottom line is that the brave souls who have defended the country and its freedom deserve to have the best resources available so that they can live out the rest of their lives in a balanced, healthy way.
But it is up to YOU, dear Veteran, to take control of your issues so you can enjoy the good life that you deserve. Thank you for your service.