On November 11, 1918 at 11 a.m. in a railroad carriage in the French Compiègne Forest, the Allies of World War I and Germany signed the armistice signaling the end of hostilities on the Western Front. A year later President Woodrow Wilson declared November 11 a national holiday, and ever since then Americans have spent November 11 celebrating the men and women who serve in the military.
While many are commemorating our armed forces with parades, ceremonies, and speeches, others are taking this day to highlight a worrisome military trend: suicide.
Jose Narosky, an Argentine writer, once wrote, “In war, there are no unwounded soldiers.” A new study, published by the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), shows how true this aphorism rings: according to CNAS, “the rapid upswing in suicides among service members and veterans during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan threatens to inflict…lasting harm.”
The policy brief, published last month, found that from 2005 to 2010, “service members took their own lives at a rate of approximately one every 36 hours.” Air Force, Navy and Coast Guard suicide rates have been “relatively stable,” but in July of this year, 33 people in the Army took their lives, setting a record.
This high suicide rate is not only horrifying, but surprising to experts. According to the study, “traditionally…military service members have been less likely to die by suicide than civilians.” Military service, the study avers, normally brings with it a sense of belonging and usefulness, both “protective factors” that help prevent suicide.
This sense of belonging can be eroded by a return from combat to garrison life, a civilian job, or no job at all. All three sorts of homecoming may “introduce feelings of uselessness,” the study says.
Post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injuries, both of which are linked to suicide, may also contribute to the higher rates, according to CNAS. These conditions coupled with a military and civilian culture that stigmatizes mental illness, mean that most people are reluctant to seek treatment: “43 percent of soldiers, airmen and Marines who took their own lives in 2010 did not seek help from military treatment facilities in the month before their deaths.”
A mother who responded to a ABC News article on the subject wrote, “We lost our son…on January 4th, 2011…When we would ask him questions worrying about PTSD and TBI, he would tell us there is no such thing as PTSD…this was not him talking, it was the Army…He did not tell anyone. We will never know why he didn’t, but we can guess that he thought if he did it would make him a complainer and less of a man.” A report published by the United States Army describes a soldier who took his own life as being “viewed as one of the most resilient Soldiers in his company.”
The Army report agrees with the CNAS findings: “Studies indicate that one of the major barriers facing Army Soldiers is the stigma of seeking behavioral health treatment for those who need it.” Though some do not seek treatment, others do. The VA’s Veterans Crisis Line received more than 144,000 calls in its first three years.
While this news is encouraging, the report suggested the following could help in preventing suicides:
- After a unit returns from deployment, “the Army should establish a unit cohesion period.” This cohesion period would make the quick transfer to the next assignment less jarring.
- When someone has to make a permanent change of station (PCS), if a unit commander “has significant concerns regarding a departing member, he or she should discuss these issues with the receiving commander.” Also, since “professional organizations license mental health care providers on a state-by-state basis, a geographical move across state lines can preclude continued care from the same provider.” The CNAS recommends that “Congress should establish a federal pre-emption of state licensing such that mental health care can be provided across state lines.”
- “Military leaders must eliminated the stigma associated with mental health care” and “hold unit leaders accountable for instances in which individuals are ridiculed for seeking treatment.”
Do you think these recommendations will help? What has helped you in your struggle? Please let us know on our Facebook Page.
If you or a loved one are need help, call the Veterans Crisis Line at 1-800-273-TALK (9255), Press 1.