The Ongoing Battle That Our Veterans Face

A car backfires outside your apartment, and you bolt out of bed. Suddenly, you’re back in Iraq surrounded by the bodies. Some are enemies, others are friends.

You bring yourself back, pacing your bedroom as your chest becomes clenched so tight that you think you might suffocate. Your wife sits helpless in bed because she knows she can’t control you when you’re like this.

After a few hours you start to feel lucid, but the anxiety and depression don’t dissipate. So maybe you grab a bottle of whiskey to calm yourself down. Or maybe you reach for some pills so you can get back to sleep.

But even when sleep comes, it’s filled with unspeakable terrors.

You wake up the next morning drained, exhausted, and still dazed from the substances you took. Your wife begs you to get help, but you’re a veteran — you’re supposed to be strong. And strong people don’t need to see counselors or get prescriptions.

But deep down, you’re not sure you’ll ever escape this nightmare you’re living in.

This is the reality for far too many veterans when they return home. In fact, some veterans don’t even have a home to return to because while they were deployed their friends and family moved on with their lives.

In honor of Veteran’s Day, we want to recognize the noble sacrifices veterans have made by highlighting the mental challenges they face once they come back.

Veterans’ Troubling Suicide Rates

Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the United States. It can affect anyone, but for veterans, the suicide rate is 1.5 times greater than it is for adults who never served in the military.

That gap is even higher for females — the suicide rate for female veterans is 1.8 times greater than the rate for non-veteran women.

Veterans account for nearly 1 in 5 of all suicides, even though veterans make up only 8.5% of the population. In fact, between veterans, active-duty servicemembers, and members of the National Guard and Reserve, there are 20 suicides every day.

So why are veterans at a much higher risk for suicide than the average citizen?

Mental Health Issues in the Military

Approximately 18.5% of service members returning from Iraq or Afghanistan have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or depression, and 19.5% report experiencing a traumatic brain injury (TBI) during deployment. These three disorders can all cause major behavioral changes, which is something a mental health professional can help counsel veterans through.

But sadly, accessing qualified mental health practitioners is something most veterans struggle with. While only about 50% of returning service members who need mental health treatment will seek it — a sobering statistic on its own — only slightly more than half of those who receive treatment will receive adequate care.

Most of the reasons that only about half of the veterans who need mental health services will seek them are similar to those of other citizens who need treatment but won’t see a professional: mental health stigmas, high costs, logistical problems, and a lack of awareness. But the reasons that many veterans who do seek mental health treatment won’t receive adequate treatment are more complex.

photo by Holly Mindrup

Bridging the Gap

While the VA does offer mental health services for both veterans and active-duty servicemembers, long wait times to see a mental health professional, coupled with concerns over the mental health treatment available there, have led to a large percentage of veterans seeking treatment in the private sector.

This means that, barring a sudden increase in the VA’s budget to increase their mental health services, there needs to be a strong force of private practitioners that are ready and willing to walk with veterans through their mental health struggles.

Hopefully as more veterans receive the care they need, through both the VA and through the private sector, we will be able to see veteran suicide rates decrease dramatically.

However, in order to make that happen, it is crucial for the percentage of veterans who seek mental health treatment to increase, and the key to this is breaking the stigma that surrounds mental health and counseling.

People need to know that seeking professional help doesn’t make you weak. It doesn’t make you weird. We all have struggles. We all need help in different ways.

If you know someone who served in the military, or who’s currently serving, reach out to them. Ask them about they’re doing. Be present in their lives. Thank them for what they’ve done.

And if they admit to experiencing PTSD, a TBI or any mental health issues, encourage them to seek out a mental health provider and equip them with the resources they need to do so. You have an opportunity to fight for them just like they fought for you.

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