Again, my community is stunned. As a friend who is still downrange in Afghanistan said, the team members read the Army Times report on suicide numbers aloud and were stunned into silence. The online community is asking how, and why. Units are holding suicide stand downs and next month is Suicide Prevention month.
The questions, the recriminations are flying. There have been conferences for years, talking about resiliency, claiming that steps are being taken to educate our service members, showing them another way out of their despair. A huge effort has been made to overturn the stigma that is prevalent, the appearance of “weakness” – senior flag and enlisted service members made PSAs, stood up at conferences and talked about their going to mental health services for help. What good has all this done?
The numbers don’t lie. That piece of “wisdom” has been thrown out as a final answer to that question; that it hasn’t done any good whatsoever. That the bad old days of refusing to acknowledge that service members were committing suicide; that the habit of throwing those who try to commit suicide out of the military as being unfit for duty produced the same results.
Some shrug their shoulders and say that this is the cost of doing business – that war and deployments back to back are going to break those who can’t stand the strain. Some bemoan the state of military medicine, the propensity for handing out pills by the bucketful with little or no counseling available. Some long for the old days, when the spectre of military suicide was hidden away and kept secret from the outside world, deaths were never counted and the surviving families crept away quietly.
This new world demands more. These wars, the ones that we have seen on our TV screens have made the wounded more visible as well. Both those with visible wounds and those with the invisible wounds that are driving more and more of my community to take this way out are on TV, in newspapers and online articles. Every day, another casualty notice comes across my email, is noted on social media.
President Obama announced today, at Fort Bliss, a new executive order, Improving Access to Mental Health Services for Veterans, Service Members and Military Families. According to the White House, this will direct “key federal departments to expand suicide prevention strategies and take steps to meet the current and future demand for mental health and substance abuse treatment services for veterans, service members, and their families.”
The lack of counselors, the difficulties in finding someone to talk to, the stigma still attached to a soldier or veteran or family member asking for help, is an enormous problem in the military community. Will this Executive Order make a difference? I hope so. Will we get more access to counselors, as is called for, especially in areas where the VA is having trouble finding such support? It is crucial that this happens.
Will our family members, especially those in remote locations not near a base or a VA hospital, find the support and counseling they need? If they don’t, our numbers will continue to climb, in silence; the silence that has come from the lack of reporting, the silence that comes from the ongoing stigma, the silence that we are trying to break.