When you hear that someone has taken their own life, the prevailing question is: Why did this happen? Why would a person choose to end their existence? Suicide is poignant enough -- no matter the reason -- but when the victims are our soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines the tragedy resonates on a nationwide scale. The number that's been widely circulated is that 22 Armed Forces veterans and one active duty soldier take their lives every day.
That number is terrible enough in its own right, but what's worse is the lack of answers. Despite the fact that we have soldiers posted in high-risk areas around the world, more die through suicide every year than in combat. Last year 295 soldiers died in Afghanistan and 349 by their own hand. How could this happen?
Even more disturbing is a recent article by CNN that says the number may be far higher than what's been revealed. Twenty-nine states, including states with heavy soldier populations like California and Texas, didn't report their numbers to the study, so there may be far more taking their lives that we're not aware of. Experts on military psychology say that unless meaningful changes are made, this epidemic is likely on its way up rather than down.
We Need Answers
It's hard to know what to do without understanding what's driving these deaths. For active duty personnel, suicides predominate in young men aged 18-24. For veterans, it's mostly men aged 50 and older. For years, our government has allowed this wound to fester and now we face an epidemic that is demoralizing our Armed Forces.
It's incumbent on all of us to get involved and support our soldiers whether or not we agree with our country's military actions, whether or not we have service members in our own families. We must demand answers and options. Several studies have indicated that a thread that runs through many of these deaths is mental illness -- often undiagnosed -- and this is where I believe we need to direct much of our efforts.
Mental Illness Is a Disease, Not a Crime
Investigation into the recent shooting incident in the DC Naval yard by veteran Aaron Alexis revealed that he had bouts of hallucinations and blackout anger -- hallmarks of mental illness. And whether the mental illness was present prior to the soldier's service or as a result of their service, mental illness is a diagnosis we hear over and over when soldiers commit acts of violence targeted at others or at themselves.
No matter what moniker is applied -- PTSD, depression or any other diagnosis -- it's clear that mental illness is one of the issues we should be most concerned about in our soldiers and veterans. Until we address the cause, the symptoms that manifest as suicides and violent behavior will continue. We owe it to our service men and women to keep them whole. They keep us safe. They protect our liberties. They go and serve willingly under conditions most of us would find unbearable. They deserve our utmost concern.
Addressing the Crisis On All Fronts
I believe there are two main avenues to effectively address the plague of soldier and veteran suicides. First, it's important to educate family members of veterans, medical professionals and all those who routinely interact with vets on warning signs of suicide. This can allow for intervention before the act is attempted. But this is on the tail end of what can be a downward spiral of mental illness.
Second is to get in front of it and push for intervention before it ever gets to this stage. To do this, we must demystify mental illness and strip away the stigma associated with a diagnosis. Many aren't willing to undergo evaluation because an official diagnosis can cost you a security clearance or result in your discharge if you are on active duty. For veterans and private citizens, a diagnosis may increase your insurance premiums, prevent you from obtaining certain jobs and block you from work opportunities. This is self-defeating and will perpetuate the crisis.
Removing the Stigma of Mental Illness
Our government and medical system has created barriers that make soldiers and veterans unwilling to present themselves for treatment. We must decide as a society that mental illness is largely manageable in the mainstream if diagnosed and treated. It's when we cast the victims out of our society and ostracize them that it becomes difficult to identify, access and help them.
There is a wide range of mental illness from depression to anxiety, from PTSD to anxiety attacks, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. Some of these are present from birth or are encouraged by heredity. Still others can be brought on by trauma, injuries, assault, abuse or many other incidences that are, unfortunately, common in life -- in or out of military service.
We must accept and acknowledge that mental illness can happen to anyone and embrace its victims. The V.A. is investing more funds in programs to try and address this, but that's not enough. We can't leave this matter in the hands of the government. It's an issue we all must face as citizens of a nation that has always been protected by its soldiers.
There are some great private organizations filling the void and taking action. One such is Stop Soldier Suicide, a veteran-led nonprofit that is the first in our nation formed specifically to help prevent soldier and veteran suicide. Their vision is to, "realize a day when soldiers and veterans who are considering suicide can easily and without shame ask for and receive the help and support they need."
Founded by Brian Kinsella, Nicholas Black and Craig Gridelli, all combat veterans, Stop Soldier Suicide aims at filling the gap of care that misses many of soldiers and veterans who desperately need help. This worthwhile organization needs support, and a local organization called Bows 'n Ties has stepped up to fundraise for it with a promise to donate all of the proceeds to Stop Soldier Suicide. You can volunteer at one of Stop Soldier Suicide's local chapters here.
Together we can combat this epidemic and defend those who have long defended us. However you choose to help, know that your support will help make tomorrow's world a much better place to live.