Tough times are taking a toll on Vermonters. Statewide, over the last 15 years, the average number of suicides has risen here from 78 to 85.
According to the latest statistics from the state Department of Mental Health, one demographic where the trend is becoming more pronounced is among veterans, many of whom recently served in the U.S. armed forces. This is sobering news.
“Members of the U.S. armed forces face obvious dangers in times of war and active duty that no one disputes,” said the Center for Health and Living in Brattleboro in a news release issued this week to mark Suicide Awareness Week from Sept. 8-14. “The continued dangers of post-service life are not always as clear.”
The Veterans Administration’s 2012 Suicide Data Report reflects that an estimated 22 veterans die of suicide each day. The figure is calculated on data from 21 states, and two large states with high veteran populations — Texas and California — did not contribute data to the study.
Vermont contributed full data and is reflected in the report. Veterans account for approximately one quarter of our state’s deaths by suicide, slightly higher than the national average of 22 percent. In central Vermont alone, there have been several distinguished soldiers who took their own lives in the last year. Historically, rates of suicide among the military have been lower than among civilians, but this is no longer the case, according to mental health experts. The number of suicides among active-duty troops of all services has more than doubled since 2001. At the same time, a study by the Armed Forces Health Surveillance Center indicates a rise of 87 percent in personnel hospitalization for mental illness, since 2000.
Many of us around Vermont know veterans — either from the National Guard or the armed forces — who have served, sometimes on several tours. Some of them are having a hard time adjusting back into civilian life because their skills don’t translate easily; others suffer from the toils of war. Many times, drugs and alcohol are being abused. The transition often is compounded by the fact that these men and women are trained to fight through anything, and asking for help can be difficult.
One must also consider what war does to our families, friends and neighbors in the service. It affects them deeply. Research by noted suicide expert Dr. Thomas Joiner indicates that familiarity with death, and the training in the military to advance toward life-threatening situations rather than withdraw, can lead to a “desensitization” around death in general and one’s own death in particular. Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America recently conducted a survey in which 43 percent of current war veterans stated they did not seek mental health care because of a perceived negative impact on their careers. Struggling with a wound that doesn’t show — such as an undiagnosed traumatic brain injury — can carry a stigma in a setting that puts a high premium on “toughing it out.” According to the report, service members have frequently reported not seeking help when experiencing depression, anxiety, grief and even suicidal thoughts. They want others to have continued confidence in them even when they lack confidence themselves.
These burdens are too big to carry alone.
The growing recognition of post-traumatic stress disorder and diagnoses of traumatic brain injuries due to IEDs has helped lessen the stigma, according to the Center for Health and Living. But many service members return to a civilian society that carries no less judgment on seeking help for mental health.
“Those servicemen and women who can break through the misperceptions and reach out for help do the best, and have the most chance of finding relief. Those that then reach back and encourage others to seek mental health services bring more awareness to the military culture overall,” the center advises in its literature.
As a society, we need to reach out and look out for these men and women. If there are signs of pain, struggle, anger and mood swings, we need to help alleviate the pain facing these brave men and women. The Veterans Administration and the Pentagon both recognize the need for action. The VA has a highly skilled Veterans Crisis Line that runs 24 hours a day and is free and confidential, at 800-273-8255. It is on the Internet at www.veteranscrisisline.net, offering online chat and tools such as a quick self-assessment quiz. The crisis line even has texting chat available — messages can be texted to 838255.
Recognizing people need help is one of the biggest barriers to reducing suicide, be it for veterans or anyone in crisis. Reach out. Show support. Be accepting. Look for the signs. If you are feeling suicidal, immediately dial 211 for United Ways of Vermont’s referral service, or Washington County Mental Health’s hotline at 229-0591, or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255). Remember, help is all around.
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