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PTSD Awareness Month: What can we do to help?
June is PTSD Awareness Month and it serves as yet another reminder of the mental health struggles many veterans face each and every day – often times without any support, according to this recent Op-Ed in Newsweek written by John Jones, a U.S. Marine veteran. In fact, Fox News reported more than 30,000 post-9/11 military personnel and veterans have died by suicide – which is four times the service members who were killed in combat in that timeframe. Recently, there has been a suicide uptick among U.S. Navy sailors.
So what can we do to prevent suicide and help veterans and military personnel suffering from mental health issues like Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder? Dr. Ken Marfilius, a U.S. Air Force veteran, shared his insight on what can be done. While in the service, Marfilius worked in multiple roles including active duty clinical social worker, mental health therapist, family advocacy officer in charge, and manager of the alcohol and drug prevention and treatment program.
We all have a role to play in our greater American society when it comes to promoting the health and wellness of our military populations. It is paramount for military leadership to create a positive organizational culture that is mission oriented with a clear vision to promote and maintain the mental health of our military service members and then execute it. Problems are a shared experience. We all have them. We share in its manifestation by doing or not doing and we share in its resolution by the same means. We can choose to act and bring about positive change we hope for, or we can do nothing and perpetuate its maintenance.
It truly takes a village. We must all be in this together—something we can all provide is an ear or shoulder to lean on. Social support does and can prevent suicide. There is strength in seeking help. Reaching out for social support protects us all. It protects your family, the ones who care about you, and your communities. A stronger military community is a stronger American society.
There is always room to do more. You do not need to be a trained therapist to save a life. We must acknowledge the inherent strengths of the human condition—we all have them. How do we continue to find those strengths to help one another? This can now be done via text, phone call, or even a virtual session. There are so many options now at our disposal—what a unique opportunity to leverage advanced technology to benefit our service members and their families.
I have witnessed firsthand that serving in the military in and of itself is not necessarily the sole reason a service member or veteran may experience mental health challenges. It certainly can and is often a contributing factor. However, what I have experienced in my work as an active-duty mental health provider and in the Department of Veteran Affairs is that mental health is often a complicated and complex issue.
Prior trauma is a significant risk factor for the development of mental health disorders. Research indicates that Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), which are traumatic experiences that occur during childhood or adolescence, influence one’s health across the entire life span. Multiple adverse childhood experiences pose significant risk for numerous mental health conditions (e.g., PTSD, substance use disorder, depression, anxiety, and suicidal ideation). This is important to understand being that individuals who experienced ACEs during childhood may seek sanctuary in the military. While this can be very positive and fundamentally alter the trajectory of a service members life for the better, we should also be exploring the associations between childhood trauma and future mental health challenges. And perhaps, how this may impact the rise in depression, PTSD, and suicide in our military and veteran populations.
We must be proactive in a reactive society. Efforts should focus on prevention, continually examining the predisposing factors and vulnerabilities that may be present in our military populations. To really sustain improvement in veteran and military mental health, we must first understand the critical need to sustain improvement in the overall public health. Service members were once young civilians before entering the military and when they transition out of the military, they are often integrated back into the communities they came from before service. They are part of the social fabric of our society. Prevention and awareness efforts must focus on the complexities of experiencing mental health challenges and its impact on not just the military member but their loved ones. It is imperative we work together as a society in promoting and sustaining the overall public health of the nation—a strong nation leads to a stronger military and veteran population across the lifespan.
We need the right services in place. These services include parent support programs, job trainings, mentors, family centered schools including mental health services, access to holistic medical care and food. We must continually monitor for the intended and unintended consequences of these interventions. The single most important factor in developing resilience in children and adults is to have a safe, stable, supportive, and committed relationship with another caring individual. We all seek human supportive connections throughout our lives.
Prevention efforts involve educating not just the service members but also their families, caregivers, and general public to identify warning signs and how to seek out the right help for that individual. Warning signs may include but not limited to depression that goes untreated, talking about wanting to die, increase in substance use, seeking access to lethal means, and displaying extreme mood swings. Risk factors for suicide may include a family history of suicide, experiencing hopelessness, trauma history, and relationship stressors. Military risk factors are similar. However, the experiences may be different, such as, a recent return from deployment or sense of loss, hopelessness, and honor. We all need purpose driven lives.
In the name of prevention, if we are experiencing someone that is displaying risk factors or warning signs, we can aid in preventing suicide by starting a conversation, reducing access to lethal means, and directing individuals to get help while providing positive and consistent social support along the way.
Any individual can aid in promoting mental wellness and suicide prevention efforts by actively listening, expressing empathy, and taking part in the integrated network of support for our nation’s military members and veterans. And perhaps, most notably, expressing they are not alone. Engaging in these conversations fosters a culture of support in so that they do not feel othered and begin to isolate, which only perpetuates the risk involved in developing depression, anxiety, and suicide.
For assistance: 24/7, confidential crisis support for veterans and their loved ones is available through the Veterans Crisis Line. They can call 1-800-273-8255 and Press 1, chat online or text 838255. In addition, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline provides 24/7 free and confidential support at 1-800-273-8255.