The writer is a retired U.S. Army Airborne Ranger. He wrote this for the Philadelphia Inquirer.
Are we doing enough to help those who have served in uniform to integrate successfully into the civilian world? The answer appears to be a decisive “no.”
It’s hard to determine precisely how many veterans commit suicide, but the most frequently cited figure comes from a 2013 U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs study that found 22 veterans die by their own hands each day. Experts warn that the number may be significantly higher, as there is no centralized data source of veteran suicides, and the numbers must be extrapolated from state-level estimates.
The challenges of returning from combat are not new. But the sheer numbers of veterans’ suicides today are cause for alarm.
One troubling aspect of this trend is that it occurs against a backdrop of more extensive support and prevention resources for veterans than ever before, thanks to substantial funding at both the federal and state levels.
Moreover, less social stigma surrounds mental health issues today. A century ago, the psychological and physical symptoms diagnosed as “shell shock” among World War I veterans were recognized as a form of post-traumatic stress disorder but dismissed by many as manifestations of cowardice or weakness.
Fortunately, that’s not the case today. Most Americans view PTSD as a condition to be treated and managed. As an Afghanistan combat veteran, I’ve experienced those struggles firsthand, as did many of the men who served with me. Virtually everyone who has served in combat understands those challenges and works to overcome them.
In response, policy-makers have boosted funding to veterans’ suicide prevention and have given the problem more attention. Earlier this year, for example, Congress passed and the president signed a law aimed at improving VA psychiatric services and suicide prevention.
So why, when mental health issues are better understood and there are more resources, would veterans continue to attempt and commit suicide at such a high rate? Part of the problem may be the manner in which we’ve bureaucratized diagnosis and treatment through the VA.
Given the well-documented challenges in getting access to VA services, there’s little reason to believe a gigantic dysfunctional bureaucracy can respond with the appropriate speed and sensitivity needed for a veteran struggling with thoughts of suicide.
Consider two cases:
Marine Corps veteran David Cranmer, who took his life March 10, had received treatment from the VA and had reportedly been prescribed antidepressant medication just weeks before his death. His father says his son had no history of suicidal tendencies, and he is calling for an investigation into whether mental health drugs are contributing to the suicide epidemic.
Army veteran Michelle Langhorst died by self-inflicted gunshot March 30 — in the parking lot of the local campus of the VA Pittsburgh Healthcare System. Her death is also under investigation.
I’m not suggesting the VA is the cause of veteran suicides, but I am asking whether the VA’s mental health care model is the most effective. Would nonprofit or faith-based organizations be more responsive and effective?
Not every veteran is a suicide risk, and most of us will make the transition to civilian life successfully. But for those who struggle with adjusting to the post-combat world, it’s important that we seek to understand their difficulties — and ensure they get the support they need.
Let’s start by asking whether the existing VA model is delivering on that promise.