Veterans are dying by their own hands across the nation every day in unreasonably high numbers.
The numbers vary, depending on where you find them. ‘Twenty-two a day’ is a popular buzz phrase. This number comes from the 2012 Department of Veterans Affairs report. The majority of the reports are older veterans which is an important detail that is not included with that number. The statistic does not give a complete picture.
A more recent survey of over a million veterans gives a strikingly different picture. From 2001 to 2009, the suicide rate for veterans was not even one a day, according to The Washington Post. That’s good news, but of course, that’s still too many.
Why is this happening? There are a number of factors that contribute to the problem. A big one is the invisible wound: post-traumatic stress disorder, and also traumatic brain injury. Both which are increasing in number. A Research and Development (RAND) Corporation study found that at least 20 percent of veterans had symptoms of PTSD, and 19 percent may have TBI, while seven percent have both. About half of those numbers never seek treatment.
Many veterans choose to self-medicate. About 20 percent of female veterans have post-traumatic stress related to “military sexual trauma,” a catch-all category that includes everything from sexual harassment to rape, and often leads to alcohol and drug problems, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs.
There is physical pain to medicate, too. More veterans than ever are surviving devastating and debilitating wounds, thanks to advances in medical science; many of them can expect to live a great deal of their lives in pain. That means long-term use of powerful narcotic painkillers, which over time can develop into addiction.
It’s easy to see how these things start to cascade. The next factor is homelessness. Veterans are twice as likely to become chronically homeless as other Americans, and female veterans are four times as likely to become homeless as male veterans, according to Newsmax.
At the greatest risk for homelessness are Vietnam and post-Vietnam veterans. However, traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder are both correlated with homelessness. That puts the Iraq and Afghanistan veterans at increased risk as well.
As if all these clear disadvantages were not a lousy enough hand of cards to deal those who have served, adding to the problem is the Department of Veterans Affairs. For some years the agency has not served those veterans well or honorably.
The scandalous lack of accountability and transparency pales beside the experiences of too many veterans. Some of those made headlines, such as when a veteran died waiting several months for an appointment, while the bureaucrats cooked the books to earn their bonuses. There is also the young man who committed suicide after he was sent to voicemail when he called the VA suicide crisis line.
President Barack Obama recently told a grieving Army widow that, “a whole bunch of people were fired” over the wait list issues. But only nine have actually been fired over that. USA Today reported in April that employees at 40 VA facilities manipulated data indicating how long veterans waited for appointments. In at least seven states, supervisors instructed employees to falsify data.
It’s scandalous that veterans are not getting the help and support they need to transition back into civilian life. What is there to be done?
First, we – as a society – really need to work at removing the stigma from mental illness. It keeps people from getting help and it adds to the burden of someone who is already struggling.
Second, it’s important that veterans know where they can go to get help without being judged. There are some very good nonprofit organizations working with veterans in a number of ways. The PTSD Foundation of America offers a number of different programs, including peer groups, one-on-one counseling, transitional housing, crisis lines and more. What they’re doing seems to be working: Camp Hope, the PTSD Foundation’s outreach unit, has not lost one veteran.