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How to Help Veterans on Mental Health

The constant beat of the major media drum often paints a grim picture of veterans and suicide. Sometimes, we wonder if these messages become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Consistent headlines include data such as:

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  • Approximately 22 veterans die by suicide each day (about one every 65 minutes).
  • In 2012, suicide deaths outpaced combat deaths, with 349 active-duty suicides; on average about one per day.
  • The suicide rate among veterans (30 per 100,000) is double the civilian rate.

Listening to this regular narrative, a collective concern and urgency emerges on how best to support our veterans who are making the transition back to civilian jobs and communities. Many veterans have a number of risk factors for suicide, contributing to the dire suicide statistics, including:

  • A strong identity in a fearless, stoic, risk-taking and macho culture
  • Exposure to trauma and possible traumatic brain injury
  • Self-medication through substance abuse
  • Stigmatizing views of mental illness
  • Access to and familiarity with lethal means (firearms)

Veterans show incredible resilience and resourcefulness when facing daunting challenges and learn how to cope, but employers and others who would like to support veterans are not always clear on how to be a “military-friendly community.”

The Carson J Spencer Foundation and our Man Therapy partners Cactus and Colorado’s Office of Suicide Prevention conducted a six-month needs and strengths assessment involving two in-person focus groups and two national focus groups with representation from Army, Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps and family perspectives.

When asked how we could best reach them, what issues they’d like to see addressed and what resources they need, here is what veterans and their advocates told us:

  • “I think that when you reach out to the vets, do it with humor and compassion…Give them something to talk about in the humor; they will come back when no one is looking for the compassion.” People often mentioned they preferred a straightforward approach that wasn’t overly statistical, clinical or wordy.
  • Make seeking help easy. A few veterans mentioned they liked an anonymous opportunity to check out their mental health from the privacy of their own home. Additionally, a concern exists among veterans, who assume some other service member would need a resource more. They hesitate to seek help, in part, because they don’t want to take away a resource from “someone who may really need it.” Having universal access through the Internet gets around this issue.
  • “We need to honor the warrior in transition. The loss of identity is a big deal, along with camaraderie and cohesion. Who I was, who I am now, who I am going to be…” The top request for content was about how to manage the transition from military life to civilian life. The loss of identity and not knowing who “has your back” is significant. Several veterans were incredibly concerned about being judged for PTS (no “D,” for disorder – as the stress they experience is a normal response to an abnormal situation). Veterans also requested content about: post-traumatic stress and growth, traumatic brain injury, military sexual trauma and fatherhood and relationships, especially during deployment.
  • The best ways to reach veterans: trusted peers, family members and leaders with “vicarious credibility.”

Because of these needs and suggestions, an innovative online tool called “Man Therapy” now offers male military/veterans a new way to self-assess for mental health challenges and link to resources.

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In addition to mental health support, many other things can be done to support veterans:

We owe it to our service members to provide them with resources and support and to listen carefully to the challenges and barriers that prevent them from fully thriving. Learn how you can be part of the solution instead of just focusing on the problem.

Stand Up for Robin Williams. . .

On Monday, Aug. 11, 2014, we lost Robin Williams. He was a brilliant actor and comic…a man most of us grew up with. We knew him as a funny guy, an alien, a genie, a nanny, an inspirational teacher and so much more. We also knew he struggled with depression, addiction and possibly bipolar disorder.

Collectively, we grieve for his loss. Williams had an uncanny ability to make us smile. Even when playing more dramatic roles, he brought light, laughter and inspiration to our lives.

We grieve, too, for thousands of other people who have died by suicide. Fathers, mothers, sisters, daughters, sons, brothers…suicide isn’t just about the person who dies. Its painful ripples spread far and wide, affecting every one of us.

We believe every suicide death is preventable, that not another person should die in desperation and alone. Those with behavioral health challenges like major depressive disorder, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia have suicide rates 10 to 15 times greater than the general population. Yet, millions survive, and many find a way to thrive. Recovery is possible!

The bitter irony of Williams’ death was the support he gave for another disease that takes lives: cancer. Williams was a strong backer of St. Jude’s Research Center and Stand Up to Cancer. He would visit cancer patients, sometimes in their own homes, bringing joy into lives that would invariably be cut short, just as Williams’ was.

The cancer prevention movement has been so effective in getting people involved – in prevention, in fundraising, in advocacy.  Now many people – whether or not they’ve been directly affected by cancer – Stand Up in solidarity to help fight the battle. They stand shoulder to shoulder with people who are fighting for their lives? They stand to honor those who’ve passed with dignity. They got people like Robin Williams to lean in, and say, “I care. What can I do to help?”

The suicide prevention movement can learn a lot from the successes of the cancer prevention movement.

How has the cancer prevention movement achieved its goals? It advanced science and promoted stories of hope and recovery. Those who want to stand up for suicide prevention can do this, too.

As Dr. Sean Maguire in the movie “Good Will Hunting,” Williams counsels Matt Damon’s Will Hunting on life, love and grief before telling him, “Your move, chief.”

Now it’s our move. Let’s honor Williams’ memory, and that of every person who has died by suicide, by making suicide a thing of the past.  What can you do to Stand Up for suicide prevention?

  • Reach out and ask others who may be going through difficult life challenges, “Are you okay? What can I do to support you?” Let them know they are not alone and that you can help them link to resources.
  • Promote the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (800-273-8255) everywhere – schools, workplaces, faith communities, neighborhoods.
  • Volunteer and participate in suicide prevention work like community walks, town hall meetings, crisis line support and more.
  • Donate to suicide prevention organizations.
  • Learn about the real facts about suicide and the strategies that have been shown to prevent it.
  • Then bring others into the circle – your healthcare providers, your employer, your educators and so on. Elevate the conversation and make suicide prevention a health and safety priority.
  • Ask your healthcare plan and provider to join you.

As a society, we’ve stood up for so many other important things. It’s time for us to stand up to suicide.

When we all stand up and move together, we create a movement. Together, our voices can create significant change in systems, in policy, in funding and in the general view of suicide. We can restore dignity and offer hope and empowerment and save lives.

This article was written by Sally Spencer-Thomas with four other members of the National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention:

  • David Covington, LPC, MBA, Recovery Innovations and Zero Suicide Advisory Group
  • John Draper, National Suicide Prevention Lifeline and The Way Forward Suicide Attempt Survivors Task Force
  • Mike Hogan, Hogan Health Services and Zero Suicide Advisory Group
  • Eduardo Vega, Mental Health Association of San Francisco and The Way Forward Suicide Attempt Survivors Task Force

#standup2suicide #zerosuicide #wayforward