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Suicide Awareness Week: What to know, how to help

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Look at your watch or set a timer on your phone for 70 minutes. By the time that countdown ends at least one veteran of this country's military will have committed suicide.

Depending on which statistics you read, between a third and a half of all those deployed to Iraq and/or Afghanistan return with some sort of recurring mental wounds — depression, anxiety, PTSD. Actual numbers vary (again) depending on the source, but most agree that 18 to 25 veterans take their own lives every day in this country.

These numbers have been seen after previous times of war, and they do not only apply to combat veterans. The rate for all veterans has more then doubled over the last decade (possibly more than that, according to some conflicting VA and DoD reporting).

September is Suicide Prevention Month. We're actually halfway through Suicide Awareness Week; it seemed doubly apropos to discuss it now, being the anniversary of the attack that sent so many to war. Among the many people talking about Suicide Awareness Week are veterans (such those writing the ongoing series over on Ranger Up), veteran advocacy groups and all branches of the military.

This is because veterans kill themselves at approximately 4x the rate of their civilian counterparts.

I would ask every citizen to pay attention to this issue whether they've served or not — not that a veteran killing himself is any more of a family tragedy and appalling waste of life than the suicide of a civilian of course. In no other part of our population is there such a high concentration of it, and remember, this is a segment of the population that crosses ethic and demographic lines on many levels. We should be going to extraordinary lengths to serve our veteran population. Instead, much as the country's attitude toward a war now 12 years old, news of endemic suicide is largely greeted with apathy or a singularly shallow response. As one of my friends once said, “Any asshole with a facade of patriotism and a working finger can like something on Facebook. It takes an asshole with more character to actually try to help out.”

He was drunk at the time (it was Memorial Day) but he's right. Even heartfelt lip service is still just lip service.

When compared to the civilian population who have not served, veterans suffering from the “invisible wounds” are far more likely to be substance abusers or homeless. They are at least twice as likely to be divorced. Three times as likely to be unemployed, at least four times as likely to attempt suicide. Think about that for a minute. Put it in the perspective not just of misery and heartbreak on the part of individuals and families, consider it also from the context of what benefits us as a nation. Veterans as business owners, educated citizens, and reliable parts of the work force are a huge economic force multiplier — oh and by the way, they are a huge part of a little thing I like to call “national security.”

If you are a veteran and you're in trouble, talk to your peers. If you're a citizen who wants to genuinely help, then provide substantive support to organizations like Gallant Few, Military Minds, the Oscar Mike Foundation, the Station Foundation or another of your choice. This will mean you have to do more than share a status update, click ‘like” or type a sympathetic comment below; you may need to volunteer time, or donate money. Do not assume every veteran is suffering from invisible wounds — but do understand many of those who are, are good at hiding it. Use the Military Crisis Line, which is the same as the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255). It is available anytime, 24 hours a day, all year. Callers can press 1 for the Military Crisis Line; this was set up as a joint effort between the DoD and VA and is in use worldwide not just by veterans (including those serving) but their family members and concerned family members. Find an organization like Gallant Few and support it or ask for help or both.

“What, if anything, can we know for certain? One of the primary takeaways…is that both the studies done on the subject of suicide and the reporting…are distressingly insufficient…. Number one, we know that the suicide rates among American military and veterans has steadily risen over the last ten years and shows no signs of slowing down…. Number two, the numbers of veterans from previous wars who have taken their own lives has risen right along with those from the current conflict. This is not an issue for a single generation, but rather one that needs to be addressed by and for the whole veteran community [in which lies] the ability to address this issue more thoroughly than it has been by any news source or organization.”  Greg Dobny

“Worse than the actual injuries was the impact it had on me.  I went from being a hard-charging infantryman and Ranger to a guy who was left 100 percent completely dependent on others. I couldn’t walk, feed myself, or even go to the bathroom. I felt hopeless; and I was convinced that life would never get any better than it was at that exact moment in time. As my recovery progressed, so did the idea of suicide. I thought of all kinds of ways of killing myself – falling off a building, overdosing on meds, and even to the extreme of smashing my head through a glass window to cut my throat since I didn’t have the hands to do it myself. Some people would read this saying “that guy needs help,” but in truth it was a coping mechanism for me.” Michael Schlitz

“You see the people you left behind. You see the society you left behind—and it’s changed…You look around at people living posh lives without any knowledge of or even interest in where you’ve been, what you’ve seen, and what you’ve done and endured. You hear people who’ve never been there opining loudly and obnoxiously about that which they don’t understand…Faced with this new reality—with a mundane job that can never, ever match how alive you felt walking along the Euphrates or in the fields of the Helmand Valley—while it seems few people really understand what you did or why you did it, you might start to feel lost. Adrift. Wondering what you’re still doing here. That’s when you’ve got to work at it.”  Peter Nealen

“How do veterans still living, those who fought in WWII, Korea, Vietnam, Grenada, etc. do it? How do they sit every day and watch the news around them? How do they go on knowing their brothers of today are fighting aimless wars, and for what? How do they live knowing the current wars fought are plagued with disinformation and propaganda? These are questions I have been asking myself on an hourly basis for well over a week now. With every new report coming out of the United States, the United Nations, Syria, or wherever, I find myself getting sick to my stomach…literally.” Kerry Patton

Remember, you can visit the Veterans Crisis Line on  the web, or for immediate help just call it:

CALL   1-800- 273-8255

TEXT   838255

You can also go to the NAMI (which has specific veteran support staff) website for assistance or ask someone who has been where you are to help you see where the purpose lies now.

“Try to see where the purpose lies now. This is another fight, one you can’t fight alone any more than you could fight AQI or the Taliban alone. Find your brothers. Fight. Because once a warrior, always a warrior. Don’t survive the war outside only to surrender to the war inside.” Peter Nealen

Note: thanks to Tipping Point With Boone Cutler for the somber but compelling feature image.

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