Featured on Tonic. Vice's health channel.
My stepfather is an Army veteran. You can tell upon meeting him that he comes from a hard-nosed military background. It's always "sir" and "ma'am" when he addresses people—and that's in casual conversation. But his formal demeanor is just one element of his layered personality. There's a lot to him: He grew up in gritty Southeast DC, went to college for journalism, was a stand-up comedian for a while, and is the family tax preparer, mechanic, and level-headed voice of reason.
He never complains about anything. He never really talks about his tours, either. He buries his military past completely—unless there's opportunity for an IHOP discount. I worry that he might be bottling up and burying so much that he'll approach a point of no return, just like so many other military veterans in his position.
Mental illness, including PTSD among veterans (both active duty or non-active military personnel are considered veterans) has long been central to the conversation around mental health in the US, due in part to its connection with suicide. A few months ago, one veteran took his life in the parking lot of a VA hospital because he didn't get the treatment he needed. His case exemplifies a growing problem: Only half of returning service members who need mental health treatment seek it, and only half of those service members receive adequate care.
According to a recent study, not only are more soldiers committing suicide, but 80 percent of them were diagnosed with a mental health disorder before they took their lives. And half of those vets told someone close to them that they were considering suicide before they died. With so much research and funding going into helping professionals detect suicidal tendencies early on, it seems unfathomable that an actual, verbal warning would go unheeded.
"What people have to realize that there is no single cause for suicide—it's highly individualized," explains Brett Litz, a clinical psychologist and military trauma expert at the Boston University School of Medicine. "Most suicides in the military occur among service members who never deployed to war. There are demographics, personalities, and life experience factors that funnel down to extreme helplessness and desperation."
My stepfather is resilient. Just last month, he survived a car crash—his car flipped twice on the highway. Witnesses said he shouldn't have survived—and yet he didn't even want to go to the hospital. Was he superhuman? Or just so used to burying his issues and trauma that the only option he saw was to move forward? When is resilience not enough?
Sweeping things under the rug can make addressing trauma overwhelming for vets. In recent years, health experts have begun to worry that the spike in Army suicides is becoming the "new normal for the military"—a terrifying idea to process. Service members are seeing fellow soldiers die in combat, veterans are going months without seeing their own families, and healthcare at the VA is still a hot pile of shit.
"There has always been a lack of understanding and empathy when it comes to what we deal with," says Will* a 24-year-old Army sergeant from Idaho. "In my five years in the Army, I have known eight individuals who have killed themselves, and the last two or three did not surprise me. You eventually just get numb to the news. It becomes less of a shock."
Of course, no two reasons for a suicide are the same—and that's what makes the rise in military suicides even more puzzling. PTSD and traumatic brain injuries can cause disruptive and manic behaviors. That can lead to being kicked out of the military—deeming a soldier ineligible for their already lackluster VA benefits. Military health professionals should be more prepared to help vets who have developed mental illnesses while serving their country.
"The military is not a normal life—that's a big factor why it can be so damaging to your mental health. There is no immediate family around a lot of the time. There's no letting your guard down. You are always on a mission," says Ryan Long, a psychotherapist and former social worker for the Washington DC Veterans' Center. You are constantly being taught to move forward and be resilient, and that leads to repressing emotions and not moving forward at all." Those ideas need to be separated, Long adds.
"You can be tough, have goals, and have your brother's back. But there needs to be a way of normalizing emotions and issues and treating them as if the soldier isn't weak-minded."