In April 2018, I lost my best friend, an active duty Marine, to suicide.
He was an amazing man, husband, father and Marine. We met when he was referred to me because he wanted to learn more about PTSD and other mental health issues so he could better serve his Marines. His goal was to reduce the stigma and improve access to behavioral health treatment while serving in the Corps.
You see, most active duty service men and women in the U.S. Armed Forces are afraid to receive behavioral health care due to the stigma of receiving treatment. They fear their military careers will be negatively impacted and their Constitutional right to bear arms will be taken away.
I had many “light bulb moments” when I was in graduate school studying to become a professional social worker. We were informed the brain is an organ of the body like the heart and stomach. If someone had a heart problem, they would see a cardiologist. If they had problems with their stomach and intestines, they would see a gastroenterologist.
The same concept applies to the brain. People who struggle with depression, anxiety, post traumatic stress, suicidal thoughts and substance misuse are seen by behavioral health providers, a team of therapists, nurses and psychiatrists who specialize in treating brain problems. Put simply, the brain needs helps too because it is susceptible to illness just like any other part of the body.
People can recover from brain problems with help, guidance and support, from professionals, family and friends. Sharing thoughts, feelings and emotions can be uncomfortable. It makes us feel vulnerable and some, particularly men, view this is a “weakness” because it makes them feel scared or sad, and may even bring them to tears. That is part of being human. Try to imagine what life would be like if you did not have thoughts, feelings and emotions.
I continue to grieve the death of my best friend and realize I always will. That is how much he meant to me.
What is unsettling is that he was afraid to ask for help because he thought it would negatively impact his career as a Marine and make him look “weak.” I often wonder if things would have been different if the stigma was gone and everyone treated brain problems like they did if there were issues with the heart and stomach. If that were true, my best friend would likely be alive today.
It is said that every day in the United States, 22 military veterans with treatable brain problems end their lives by suicide. This has been the case for years. I alone cannot fix this issue, but we as a community can start a conversation, which is the most important step to finding a solution. It becomes pretty simple when you view it from the aspect of the difference between life and death.
Studies show relationship of PTSD, suicide
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the U.S. Males are more likely to die by suicide than females. From 1999-2010, the average suicide rate among men was 19.4 out of every 100,000, compared to 4.9 out of every 100,000 women.
The stats are the same among those now serving in the military or veterans. Most in that group are males, Caucasian and under age 30.
In June 2019, the Department of Veterans Affairs reported troops who served during Operation Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom have high rates of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Specifically, 11-20 percent have or had PTSD and may be at risk for other mental health problems.
Research conducted by Kline A, Falca, Dodson M, Sussner and others shows that depression may have affected between three-to-25 percent of those returning from these conflicts. PTSD was more likely to be diagnosed in service members several months after they returned from the two conflicts, rather than right away.
In September 2019, the Washington Post released a Pentagon Report stating the suicide rate among active-duty service members had climbed over the past five years. In 2018, 541 service members (325 active duty) died by suicide. The Army and Marine Corps had the highest suicide rates. Of those, 60 percent were carried out by a firearm.
Another study (Oquendo, Friens and Halberstam) found there is a relationship between trauma and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Suicide risk can be higher in those with PTSD.
The American Psychiatric Association lists PTSD as a mental health problem that some people develop after experiencing a life-threatening or traumatic event such as combat, a natural disaster, a car accident or sexual assault. It is not unusual to have upsetting memories, feel on edge, or have trouble sleeping after this type of event.
Symptoms of PTSD include intrusive memories, nightmares, irritability/anger and poor impulse control. These are accompanied by mental health and substance conditions like depression, anxiety, insomnia, and drug and alcohol misuse. If symptoms last more than a few months, it may be PTSD. There is evidenced-based treatments for those suffering with these maladies.
Even though it’s known PTSD is common among veterans and evidenced-based treatments are available, too many are not seeking help. Fortunately, something is being done about this. The DOD realizes there is a stigma problem and is taking steps to reduce it.
Veterans no longer need to report they are seeking mental health treatment for combat-related reasons. The military also is trying to spread the word that symptoms such as PTSD are normal after experiencing the stressors of war. Many veterans are coming forward to share their experience as a way to decrease the stigma and allow others to speak up about their struggles.
What do you do if feeling suicidal or know someone who is?
Keep in mind for the latter that it’s OK to ask someone if they are having suicidal thoughts. It is not going make them more suicidal. Actually, it might be a relief for them because someone asked the question. If they are having suicidal thoughts, stay with them, listen and get them help immediately. The following are some resources that provide help and guidance.
· National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, 1-800-273-8255
· Veterans Crisis Line, 1-800-273-8255, press “1”
· Go to the closest Emergency Room
· Call 911
· Call the Installation Operations Center 24/7 at 804-765-7425
· Call a chaplain or another member of the clergy
· During duty hours, go to Kenner Army Health Clinic and talk to any medical provider