Last week, VA released its first report on veterans’ suicide since 2010. The new report estimated that 22 veterans commit suicide each day – a 22 percent jump from 2010. To learn more about the report, click here.
For the first time, the report included detailed data from states, making the VA’s estimate more accurate than in the past. Unfortunately, the report only served to confirm growing concerns for the VFW about veterans’ access to quality mental health care and the negative stigma associated with seeking treatment for mental health conditions.
Last year, VA reported to Congress that it intends to hire an additional 1,600 mental health care practitioners in the coming year, though plans on how VA intends to accomplish this have not been drawn up.
Unfortunately, even with additional personnel, the negative stigma associated with seeking treatment persists among the public, veterans and within the ranks of the military. Stars and Stripes reporter Leo Shane penned an article this week that finally tackled how the public and general news outlets tend to misunderstand PTSD and other combat-related mental health conditions – possibly driving veterans away from much-needed treatment.
In his story, Shane finally refutes the “crazy veteran” stereotype and lays out how PTSD often manifests itself through isolation and is not directly correlated to violent outbursts, as many who do not fully understand mental health assume. Read Shane’s piece by clicking here.
But there’s more at play with the negative public stigma. Speaking up about your feelings is contradictory to what we teach service members in the military. Recruits are told to “suck it up, drive on, ” and at times, this attitude is mission-critical. If you’re shot in a firefight, you need to still be able to suppress your attackers and either take your objective or evacuate your teammates from the killzone. When the bullets stop flying, that’s when you can take care of any injuries.
Unfortunately, military training encourages bravado and a sense of invincibility, and associates mental obstacles with weakness. As a result, many in the military cannot correlate mental injuries like PTSD to physical injuries like a gunshot wound, when many times both can be equally detrimental to military readiness and mission effectiveness.
Proper treatment for the mental injuries of war starts with military leaders who can recognize the symptoms of these conditions just as easily as they can recognize bullet holes, broken bones or missing limbs, and can encourage their troops to treat the condition as they would any other illness or injury. The military is slowly recognizing this, and some leaders are evolving, but old habits die hard.
But even if we change the command climate toward mental health and change the public discourse on PTSD, veterans still may not seek out help (see: bravado, invincibility, weakness, old habits die hard…). This is why peer mentoring needs to remain a top priority.
The VFW is no stranger to the model of peer mentoring. In fact, it is the underlying principle behind VFW canteens and VFW posts. When veterans returned from prior conflicts, they needed to find a sanctuary of like-minded individuals to whom they could relate. VFW posts served that function. Regardless of age differences, veterans could always count on a sympathetic ear who understood the challenges that come with combat exposure and could offer sound advice on how to adapt and overcome in civilian life.
In a digital world, the way peer mentoring resources are delivered has shifted. VFW posts still offer a physical safe haven for many veterans, but others who still may be leery to discuss their combat experiences openly also need places to go, either online or over the phone, where they can speak to someone who understands them. One such program that leverages technology to offer peer assistance is the Vets4Warriors program. Last year, the VFW called on Congress to provide additional funding for programs like Vets4Warriors, and Congress listened. However, Vets4Warriors remains a fledgling program, and more innovation is needed in the digital space to help veterans overcome combat-related mental health issues.
The VFW was saddened by the VA’s report on suicide, but we hope it serves as a wake-up call for the nation and how we address military mental health. In the next two years, our military plans to be out of Afghanistan and the active duty force is set to contract. The Pentagon, VA, Congress and the veterans’ community need to act now to make sure we can meet the needs of our veterans as they come home. It is unacceptable that our nation loses more heroes on the homefront than we lose on the battlefield.