Personal crises respect no demographic boundaries. Thoughts of suicide don’t care about your vocation or how much money you make. It can happen to virtually any of us.
While it was critical to appreciate and educate the public on the prevalence of suicide among America’s veterans and service members (an estimated 20 per day), suicide often goes beyond the uniform. Military spouses, children, and caregivers don’t deploy, but they do experience anxiety, isolation, and uncertainty during deployments.
Frequent transfers to new duty stations also mean adapting to new communities and schools, some of which are military-friendly, while others fail to account for unique needs and challenges. Even after service members become veterans, the lives of those who also leave the service can be disrupted by transition and a sense of loss.
It is for these reasons that our collective scope of awareness needs to embrace the mental wellness of families whose “fitness for duty” can indirectly impact military readiness. But it cannot stop there.
Many veterans transition into careers that not only fulfill their continuing desire to serve, but also bear risks and stresses similar to their time in uniform. Those who become first responders often absorb hardships so the rest of us don’t have to. Nearly 20 percent of police officers are military veterans. Veterans and military family members are also well represented among firefighters, emergency medical technicians, and front-line hospital staff. In some cases, these high-stress occupations have higher rates of suicide than the number of fatalities related to dangers inherent to the line of duty.
What links all of these risks, to include the general population where 123 Americans commit suicide each day, is mental health, and specifically how mental wellness is measured, how timely access to quality care is assured, and how effectively awareness is utilized as a first line of defense in curbing the rate of suicide.
The right tools
The Heimlich maneuver is universally recognized as a lifesaving measure that can be applied by anyone to save someone who cannot breathe. Similarly, arming everyday citizens with the ability to recognize the red flags often associated with an intent to self harm and easy-to-remember steps one can take to deescalate a situation until professional help arrives would exponentially increase the odds of saving lives.
However, this is easier conceived than executed. It will require unprecedented collaboration between the social, corporate, and government sectors, with each bringing resources, competencies, and stakeholder perspectives integral to closing gaps and eliminating redundancy of effort as part of a “collective impact” model.
We witnessed an example of how this model of intervention and advocacy worked to combat COVID-19, first by appreciating the importance of social distancing, masking up, and knowing the signs. Taking what we’d learned and putting into practice was then the key to flattening the curve. It will take a similar collective and multifaceted effort to markedly decrease the rate of suicide among veterans, service members, military family members, and others in our country in search of hope.