It’s no secret that a very unfortunate amount of veterans commit suicide – about twenty two every day in the US. But what causes veterans to commit suicide? What can be done about it? What would it take?
What causes veterans to commit suicide has been the subject of many studies. At nearly double the rate of other U.S. adults, the veteran suicide rate is a major concern for the nation. Many veterans commit suicide as a result of mental illness, including Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Other veterans commit suicide as a result of the difficult and sometimes insurmountable challenges they face upon returning home after a deployment. Many veterans come home to find their spouse has left them, their old job has been filled, or even that they’ve been evicted for not paying rent while they were deployed.
A returning veteran can experience profound loneliness, surrounded by people who don’t understand who they’ve become, and expect them to be who they used to be. While many veterans cope with this and eventually grow into a new life, when this loneliness is combined with mental illnesses such as PTSD and Gulf War Syndrome, their own mind can become a torture chamber from which death may be considered a welcome release. A potent example is that of Daniel Somers, a veteran whose suicide note went viral after his family released it to the local media. In the note, Somers describes his condition (a combination of PTSD, Gulf War Syndrome, and Fibromyalgia) as “all day, every day is a screaming agony in every nerve ending in my body.”
As with other adults, veterans that commit suicide have a host of reasons for doing so, but mental illness is one of the largest known risk factors for suicide for veterans. So, knowing what the primary risk factors are for veterans to commit suicide, what can we do as both a nation and as individuals to mitigate those risk factors and help keep our veterans alive? One issue that needs to be addressed in some way is the availability of mental health care to veterans that need it. For a veteran living in a rural area, it is not uncommon to travel upwards of 60 miles to get to the nearest VA mental health clinic. It’s hard to find the time and means to make the trip when one is already spending all of one’s time getting their life back. To help with this, health practitioners are counseled to take the time to ask their patients if they’re veterans, and if they are, to sensitively ask if they’ve contemplated suicide. If the answer is no, then great, but if the answer is yes, then the veteran will feel much more comfortable talking about it with the practitioner – which becomes the first step in getting treatment.
While many programs and policies have been instituted over the years to help with the problem of veteran suicide, not a single one has successfully brought the numbers of suicides significantly down. But a new attempt is being made – this one utilizing modern technology.
It’s called “The Durkheim Project”. It is completely opt-in, and it analyzes veterans’ social media activity and compares it to behaviors that have been found to be risk factors for suicide. While it sounds a bit fishy, The Durkheim Project is completely transparent, and complies with all federal regulations for medical privacy. Being completely opt-in, no one who doesn’t want their activity being analyzed will have it analyzed. The Durkheim Project is still in Phase two, meaning that the results of its efforts have yet to be determined, but many are very excited about the possibility of being able to identify those at risk for suicide long before they attempt to take their own life.
The Durkheim Project is being carried out by the private sector, with minimal involvement by the government. But the government needs to be carrying out steps to deal with this issue as well. Part of Daniel Somer’s suicide note accuses the VA of being indifferent to him and his situation. As if the VA didn’t already have enough bad press, much of the nation turned against it when Somer’s suicide note went viral. In response to the rising count of PTSD cases, President Obama “allocated more funding” to the VA to help them handle the increased amount.
It is the opinion of the author that what veterans contemplating suicide really need is people who care about them the person and not them the number and are trained to help treat and counsel those overcoming the obstacles of PTSD and other mental health illness. Would it save lives for the VA to host free seminars for families of servicemembers to attend to learn how to recognize the signs and provide secondary assistance as the servicemember works to overcome their mental illness? Would it save lives to establish video chat opportunities for any veteran living more than 30 miles from a VA mental health clinic? Would it save lives to build smaller VA clinics in more rural areas? The federal government has a responsibility to be innovating new ways to assist veterans who are suffering from mental illness.