Suicides Are Still On The Rise In The Military — Is That Really a Surprise? Spoiler: The Answer Is ‘No.’
In my dark room, a surf video plays in the background. Behind my TV, lay a few empty beer cans, and here I am, sure as shit that my life is not worth it. “This ain’t it.” I say to myself as I depress the slide release lever of my handgun and put my firearm in my mouth.
The direction the military has been taking over the years can be culminated as a regressive one. With the growing increase in the number of suicides over the past decade, involving active servicemembers and veterans, I felt it was appropriate to write about the growing epidemic that is facing us as a nation and possibly illuminate ideas in progressive action we can take to have a more pragmatic approach to this dire problem.
In 2018, the U.S. Military suffered 321 losses from the Army, Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps. The DoD is baffled at the extraordinary loss of life and is perpetually failing to remedy the situation, especially through callous and parochial leaders who convey the idea of suicide as, “shameful.” Moreover, the DoD fails to recognize that leaders need to cascade support, rather than stigmatize troops for wanting to get help through various resources offered across many U.S. military installations. However, the resources from the DoD and “Military Community Counseling Centers” may not necessarily provide adequate treatment to support a positive and ‘surefire’ prognosis.
An article published in Task & Purpose highlighted serious issues embedded in the foundations of our military services mental health systems. Troops across the globe are actively seeking private mental healthcare outside of the DoD network out of their own pockets — the ramification of command stigmatization and distrust of DoD healthcare facilities. To clarify for my civilian readers:
- The barriers of mental health, ethics, and confidentiality through facets such as HIPPA are not a exactly a “fundamental right” within the military. Meaning that “our leaders” (or bosses) can have access to our mental health record. This also blurs the lines further with actions known as a “command referral” and “voluntary referral.” In other words, if your leadership “feels” as if you might be having a “mental health episode,” they can submit a command referral for you to get mandatorily “checked out” by a DoD Mental Health Treatment Facility. This embarrassment may lead many troops to repress the true nature of their feelings, thus a full intake might be skewed on patient processing forms.
- Command (or unit) gossip IS A THING. Just like the inner workings of highschool, “leaders” will gossip and talk and your business, which will ultimately spread like wildfire across the command from loose lips, making the service member feel like even more of an outcast and refrain from getting the help they so desperately need, in fear of reprisal from higher-ups and bullying from peers. This is also a complete and utter violation of privacy and trust from unit leaders.
“Clients’ narrative themes included fear of reprisal for seeking services, mistrust of command, insufficient and unresponsive services, cost as a barrier to care, deception in recruitment, voluntary enlistment remorse, guilt about actual or potential killing of combatants or non-combatant civilians, preexisting mental health disorders, family and household challenges that contributed to distress, and military sexual trauma.” -Military Medicine, an Oxford University Press Journal.
Task and Purpose also cataloged the break down of a survey from the study:
- 93% of respondents claimed poor quality of treatment.
- 50% for fear of reprisal from their command and unit leaders.
- 38% for “mistrust” of their command.
I think it's fair to state the obvious in saying that there is a clear disconnect and DoD officials need to start recognizing the urgency of implementing new rules and regulations when it comes to the mental health of their troops. Furthermore, leaders on the deckplates should undergo more stringent training and discipline to protect the privacy of troops who need help, placing themselves in their junior troops boots, instead of capitalizing on their weakness.
Toxic leaders and command climates that are reinforced by various units only perpetuate the stigma — proven by various cases we find out about through statistics and stories such as the one surrounding Navy Aviation Electrician's Airman Brandon Caserta who committed suicide by hurling himself into the spinning tail rotor of a military chopper. His immediate deckplate leadership failed him, and it’s reasonable to affirm that the Navy failed him. The Navy failed him by allowing a toxic immediate supervisor to continue to lead because of an antiquated “promotion evaluation checklist.” His command failed him by not taking his well-being seriously. But ultimately, we failed him as a nation because we continue to live in ignorance, outside of the seriousness of mental health issues, especially with our service members.
Even in life after the service, support thins further. The VA reported that the suicide rate for younger veterans increased by more than 10%.
“In 2016, the most recent data available, the suicide rate for veterans was 1.5 times greater than for Americans who never served in the military. About 20 veterans a day across the country take their own lives, and veterans accounted for 14 percent of all adult suicide deaths in the U.S. in 2016, even though only 8 percent of the country’s population has served in the military.” -Leo Shane III, Military Times
Due to long wait times and dissatisfaction to a narrow-minded approach to mental healthcare in the Veterans Affairs, Veterans are electing to take their own lives in Veteran Affair facility parking lots and even waiting rooms. This just goes to show that efforts share commonality; dissatisfaction with Department of Defense and Veteran Affairs healthcare system.
More recently, government leaders signed a VA “Choice” program which allows veterans to seek help outside of the Veterans Affair Healthcare System and in the private sector. Perhaps it might be a wise idea for the DoD to take those surveys seriously and implement some variation of it within the military so that their war-fighters will be able to handle the fight overseas, back at home, and after they’ve transitioned from the service.
I appreciate the continuous efforts of caring healthcare providers and advanced practitioners who are fighting their hearts out to get us the support we need — but sadly it is not enough and we cannot do it alone. It takes discipline, understanding, and a preventative, pragmatic approach to abstain from feeding the vicious stigma of Mental Health from all facets of servicemember and veteran well-being.
My life was ultimately saved by having a moment of clarity after a family member called me out of the blue, talked to me, and just listened. From that, I took my finger off the trigger and was able to propel my understanding of life towards growth and progression. I removed all “easy and quick” ways of harming myself and am now getting the help I need. If you or someone you know might be suffering, listen to them. Encourage them to get help. What solutions enlightened me cannot be placed as a blanket solution for others, but perhaps it can enlighten you or someone else to seek answers and recognize that its actually OK to ask for help.